Outcry as German crop rots

Germany’s decision to restrict the working rights of east Europeans is hitting consumers where it hurts – their asparagus steamers.

After this year’s warm, wet spring, the sandy plains of central Germany should have yielded an asparagus vintage for the history books. Instead, entire fields of the delicacy are rotting unplucked.

This perplexing situation has sparked an outcry in asparagus-obsessed Germany, where considerable quantities of the squat, white, local variety are consumed every spring.

Farmers, politicians and economists are scrambling for an explanation.

At the Federal Statistical Office, which charts the amount produced in the country, experts are warning about a paradoxical year, with a harvest below the record 82,000 tons registered in 2005 despite better growing conditions.

Everyone agrees on the reason; there is a shortage of pickers. The 300,000 foreign seasonal hands, mainly Poles, who normally work the three-month “Spargelsaison” seem to have better things to do this year.

Jürgen Jakobs, who runs a farm in Beelitz, the Vatican of asparagus culture, says only two-thirds of the 300 Poles he wanted to hire this year bothered to respond, forcing him to leave 15 per cent of his land unharvested. These fields are now covered in two-metre high, inedible green ferns.

For free-market liberals, the blame lies with government. Last year Berlin was one of six older members of the European Union to extend restrictions on citizens from new member states working in the country.

Although asparagus farmers are partly exempt, their Polish helpers are not allowed to work for more than four months and the labour ministry dictates that 10 per cent of Germany’s 320,000 asparagus pickers should be German.

Dietrich Paul, head of the federation of asparagus farmers in Lower Saxony, says this discrimination has alienated Poles: “They prefer to go to the UK, Ireland and Holland where they can work all year round.”

Herbert Buscher, economist at the IWH research institute in Halle, agrees that Germany, whose booming economy is now suffering from drastic shortages of workers in certain sectors, has “shot itself in the foot with its restriction to the free movement of workers”.

Yet he says high pay in the UK and rising purchasing power in Poland are to blame for Germany’s asparagus predicament. Not to mention labour shortages in Poland itself, where many companies are now reluctant to grant their employees holidays so that they can pluck asparagus in the west.

Others blame Germany’s high unemployment benefits, which mean few locals consider six days a week of back-breaking 12-hour days for €4 ($5.39, £2.70) an hour. A favourite saying among asparagus farmers these days is “foreigners may not, Germans will not”.

“I don’t bother with jobseekers any more,” Mr Paul says. “They always give up after a few days.”

“Of course,” says Herbert Buscher, economist at the IWH research institute in Halle, “one solution would be to pay the seasonal workers better.” Given Germans’ astonishing worship of the asparagus, one would imagine a slight price rise would be palatable.

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