In early May, a number of experts warned of a sharp rise in the price of strawberries if the entry of seasonal workers from Eastern Europe and Thailand is blocked as a result of interest rate restrictions.
Read more: What happens to berry prices if foreign seasonal labor cannot enter Finland? Unanimous assessment by experts
More than a month ago, Kalle Hoppula, a researcher at the Natural Resources Center, predicted that prices would rise by 20 per cent, at worst to 40 euros per box.
Now he estimates that the strawberry market will see sharp price differences during the summer depending on whether the farm has received foreign labor or not.
The government has allowed 9,000 seasonal workers to come in from abroad, and the berry farms are fighting a fierce battle, especially among Ukrainians trained in strawberry picking.
- Usually 15,000–20,000 seasonal workers have arrived in Finland in the summer. Some of the farms have to hire Finnish first-timers as pickers. They pick strawberries about 30 percent slower than Ukrainians. As a result, the production costs of these facilities will rise and the prices with it, Hoppula tells Taloussanomat.
According to Hoppula, Ukrainians typically pick strawberries at about 10 to 20 pounds per hour.
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The changed workforce structure may also be reflected in the quality of the strawberries
Sales of strawberries in southern Finland have already begun. On the northern edge of Finland's main strawberry production areas in Ylä-Savo and Etelä-Kainuu, the harvest season begins around mid-July, Hoppula says.
Tens of percent of this year’s berries are believed to be left in the field due to labor shortages.
Ukraine has made it more difficult for its citizens to find employment in Finland by requiring them to have an employment relationship of at least three months. On some Finnish strawberry farms, the employment of seasonal workers tends to last only a few weeks.
According to Miika Ilomäki, Executive Director of the Fruit and Berry Farmers' Union, the government of Prime Minister Sanna Marin (sd) has made an amendment to the law in force by the end of October, which may in exceptional circumstances facilitate the employment of Ukrainians.
- The change in the law allows employees to move freely from one farm to another after the termination of one employment relationship. Even if a certain farm has no employment for more than a few weeks, a Ukrainian can continue to work on another farm. In this way, the seasonal worker receives additional earnings and a longer working time in Finland.
If strawberry farms are not able to provide proper training for first-time pickers, the consequences will also be reflected in the quality of strawberries, according to Hoppula. Further volatility in prices is caused by declining demand for restaurants and hotels in financial difficulties.
According to Hoppula, freezer companies that freeze strawberries for large retail chains are still unsure of the price at which they can buy strawberries from farms. Traditionally, farms have charged somewhat lower prices to freezers than in the consumer market.
- I've been working with strawberry twenty years and I have never before witnessed such uncertain situation. We have the harvest season starting in a few weeks. We still don’t know how this will end, Hoppula says.
Will the labor shortage on berry farms be remedied in the future with picking robots?
According to Hoppula, the borders closed by the corona do not only threaten the Finnish strawberry, but it is a dangerous situation that destabilizes the entire global fruit production.
- The world's largest orange-producing region is in trouble because in South America, many countries have prevented labor from moving to neighboring countries. The consequences always hit the juice shelves of Finnish stores by force. What will the retail fruit and vegetable counter look like next winter if the main vegetable and fruit import countries do not get labor on their farms?
Hoppula is part of the Natural Resources Centre's innovation project investigating the robotisation possibilities of domestic berry picking. The project receives money from the European Rural Fund and aims to develop robots already used in greenhouses in southern Europe, for example, to withstand Finnish field conditions.
- The greenhouse is always an undisturbed environment where the robot is easy to pick up. Uneven fields no longer go exactly as they do in Strömsö.
According to Hoppula, the robotisation of berry production would be a great relief for farmers suffering from labor insecurity. However, when it comes to the market, robots are believed to be impossibly expensive cabinets for low-budget farms. The transition of the industry is therefore expected to last several years after the development of the prototype.
- On the other hand, if an entrepreneur has to pull melatonin every year in the early summer and cry at night whether the berries are leaving the field, yes, he will soon be ready to buy a robot even with a bank loan. I see great psychological significance here from a farmer’s perspective, Hoppula says.