Covid-19 poses challenges to Spanish agri food co-ops

Co-ops are looking to hire temporary farm workers

With Covid-19 preventing thousands of seasonal workers from travelling to Spain, agri food businesses are facing serious labour shortages.

To address the problem, the Spanish Federation of Agricultural Co-operatives has launched an appeal for temporary farm workers. The federation estimates that between 80,000 and 100,000 workers will be needed.

The appeal follows a decree issued by the Spanish government on 7 April, through which tens of thousands of migrants or unemployed people who receive state benefits will be allowed to work in agriculture for a three-month period.

Due to be in place until 30 June, it is hoped the plans will enable the agricultural sector to feed the nation, which is also a key exporter to the EU.

The agri-food sector has been declared essential and has maintained its activity. Co-ops operating in this sector have also implemented preemptive measures, such as maintaining distance and providing protective equipment for workers.

Ángel Villafranca, president of the Spanish Federation of Agricultural Co-operatives, welcomed the extraordinary measures. Prior to the decree, the federation had engaged with the minister of agriculture, fisheries and food, Luis Planas, suggesting solutions to the labour shortages.

Related: EU agri co-ops seek action on supplies and pricing

“We believe that these measures allow groups that are outside the labor market or in a vulnerable situation to access this activity and improve their income with additional income. We hope that the management is carried out in an agile way and that the agricultural campaigns can proceed as normally as possible, despite the current exceptional circumstances,” added Agustín Herrero, general director of the federation.

Undocumented workers will be granted temporary work visas while unemployed Spaniards will be able to continue to receive state benefits while working as fruit pickers.

The fruit and veg sector runs the risk of being amongst the most affected, due to its seasonal nature. According to the Spanish Federation of Fruit and Veg producers and exporters, Fepex, the sector will require 16,000 additional workers in April, 18,000 in May and 28,000 in June. Spain is the European Union’s biggest fruit and veg exporter. The country needs a total of 300,000 seasonal workers.

Another problem for agricultural co-ops is not being able to sell their produce to hotels, cafés and restaurants (Horeca), all of which have been closed down. Amongst the most affected by this are co-ops selling lamb and beef meat, specially the cuts that have the highest added value, and wine. The goat milk sector has also been affected because there are currently no buyers for the production of cheese.

According to Mr Herrero, the plants and flowers producers have also been impacted by the crisis. With local markets and florists closing down and parties cancelled, the sector has ceased operating.

“The situation is changing day-by-day, and other sectors may encounter new problems due to changes in the consumption habits of citizens,” he said, adding that the Spanish government is working to provide direct aid to sheep meat farmers in addition to a comprehensive package of state-backed loans.

“We hope that the European Commission will implement intervention measures in the meat sectors, which will be the most affected by the closure of the Horeca sector,” he added.

Co-operative retailer Eroski, which belongs to worker co-op Mondragon, has stepped in to help some of the co-ops affected by enabling them to sell their product in its stores.

“Supermarkets, like the entire food chain, are working very efficiently to supply the market and to enable consumers to have a wide variety of foods at all times. In the Basque Country area Eroski has reached agreements with small producers and agricultural co-operatives to help them market their products, since the current situation has caused them to lose their usual sales channels,” commented Mr Herrero.

Eroski has reached an agreement with the Basque government and Harakai co-operative to market lamb meat from Basque farmers.

“Collaborating with local producers is part of our identity,” commercial director for local products, Asun Bastida, said in a statement.

Furthermore, the retailer will facilitate collection and distribution of products from two of its main local suppliers of vegetables.

The co-operative markets more than 2,000 products from more than 450 small agri-food producers in the Basque Country, with whom is has medium and long-term agreement. In total, Eroski purchases more than €382m worth of products from local producers, which helps them have stability at a time of market volatility.