Estonia's strawberry growers once again searching for pickers

Strawberries. Source: Mirjam Nutov/ERR

Strawberry farmers' seasonal labor concerns have returned once again and many say it is impossible to find workers to pick their produce. The war in Ukraine has exacerbated the problem as coronavirus did in 2020.

For berry growers, the season has already begun and fertilizing plants, weeding and putting up polythene growing tents has already started.

But, exactly who will pick this year's strawberries is still unknown. Usually, plans are put in place in January but this spring everything is still up in the air. Estonia is heavily reliant on Ukrainian for temporary and seasonal labor.

"Before the war, many people had agreed that they would come but at the moment the situation is such that they do not know if they are coming or not. Three or four of my people have arrived in Estonia. People [refugees] who come here are looking for professional jobs, they say when we speak to them. People are in a difficult condition, mentally, they are very much looking forward to going home. Today I cannot say that I have pickers for summer," said Laari Farm owner Kadri Nebokat.

As much of the most critical work is physically demanding and more suited to men, is also a challenge as most of the refugees who have arrived are women.

In two weeks' time, Eesti Maasika Farm in Nõo Municipality will need approximately 40 workers to plant its 15-hectare strawberry field.

"We do not have people yet. We are especially feeling the loss of experienced men who cannot leave Ukraine at the moment. It is exactly the same as it was two years ago, although when Covid started some men were still coming, but in the same way these people are not here now, those who have experience and know what to do," said farm owner Helen Kaskema.

Kaskema is searching for 80 workers by June, but no applications have been received so far. Nebokat has spoken with refugees but many of them are based in Estonia's biggest cities and want to find work there. They also want their children to be able to continue in schools and kindergartens.

"We are not on a stable footing at the moment, but I hope that we get pickers. At the moment you cannot say there is a Plan B. We are on standby," she said.

Strawberry growers are sad that workers they have spent several summers in the fields with are now in a dangerous warzone.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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