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COVID-19: Foreign Labor & Strawberries

Nothing beats biting into a strawberry and having the juices drip down your chin. But have you ever stopped to think about where these strawberries come from and who picks them?

We'll start with a little geography lesson: Spain is in South-West Europe. Just above Africa. In fact, if you stand on the beaches of Spain and squint, you can even see Morocco. (Or that’s what someone told me when I was standing on a Spanish beach in college.).

Spain is the third largest producer of strawberries in the world (behind the U.S. and Turkey: source). Labor, as it turns out, is the most important input in strawberry production. Strawberries grow on low bushes and need to be picked when ripe, then quickly delivered to customers. Where does Spain get their workers to help with picking strawberries? Not surprisingly, a lot come from Morocco.

Everything seemed to be working fine in this relationship. Just this past November (2019), a plan was set between a Moroccan delegation and Spanish officials so that over 16,000 Moroccans would go work in the Spanish strawberry fields in 2020. (source)

And then along came March 2020. Just about the time when strawberries were entering peak season.

On March 15, Morocco suspended international travel (source)

On March 22, Spain went on lockdown (source)

So who is going to pick strawberries now? By the time these lockdown restrictions were put into place, less than 40% of expected Moroccan workers had arrived. In one province in Spain (Huelva), strawberry farms are reportedly short 25,000 temporary workers (temporeros), apparently due in large part to the inability of Moroccan workers to get to Spain. (source)

Faced with this threat to its strawberry crop, Spain is not standing idly by. Spanish authorities are suddenly embracing illegal workers, allowing them to work the strawberry fields. Additionally, they are allowing unemployed folks to both collect unemployment benefits AND make money by picking fruit. (source) These policy changes will hopefully combat the short-term labor shortage created by limiting cheap labor from entering the country.

The Spanish strawberry labor problems are not unique to Spain… or strawberries. Across Europe, countries depend on Eastern European workers to temporarily work their farms. With travel restrictions, they are in a bind. Britain, France, and Germany have all appealed to their newly unemployed and furloughed workers to come help pick farms (source & source) .

They have also begun to lift travel restrictions. Germany, which celebrates “Spargelfest” (literally, asparagus party) in many communities as a way to welcome the spring, was especially concerned about their asparagus market. Germany has now begun flying workers in from Romania and other Eastern European countries to help with the markets. (source) Similarly, farms in Britain are chartering flights to bring workers in to pick onions, peas, and beans. (source)

What about the U.S.? Agriculture picking has been declared an essential service, which allows people to continue going to work on strawberry farms (source). About a month ago, the United State restricted H2A visas, which are visas that allow agricultural workers to temporarily enter the country to work (i.e. harvest crops). (source). That restriction has been relaxed, however, opening up the supply of workers to pick strawberries (and other produce). (source).

THEN this past Monday night President Trump said that he was halting all immigration. Businesses immediately objected to this plan, and while there still may be limitations on who can enter, temporary farm workers will be allowed to enter to help with produce. (source)

All in all, travel restrictions with COVID have highlighted the importance of temporary labor from foreign countries. The supply of strawberries (and other produce) depends on the supply of overseas labor. Conversely, disrupting the foreign labor supply risks disrupting the supply of delicious products like strawberries.

Normally, restricting the supply of strawberries would cause an increase in the price of strawberries. But COVID-19 could also disrupt the demand for strawberries. As people are cooking more at home, you can imagine they will want to make strawberry shortcake, strawberry cake, strawberry biscuits, strawberry pie, strawberry ice cream, …. On the other hand, as people stock up on items that are non-perishable, strawberries might not serve their needs. Strawberries go bad relatively quickly, making them less than ideal during a pandemic. On top of this, people who have lost their jobs cut back on expenses. The overall effect on the price of strawberries remains to be seen. If prices rise, it could be because of the lower supply or higher demand (or both). If prices fall, then the demand must have sufficiently fallen to offset the drop in the strawberry supply due to labor shortages.

Below I have a strawberry pie recipe for you, but here are some of my other favorite strawberry desserts, all from Smitten Kitchen:

Spring Strawberry Pie

About ten years ago I spent time searching for a strawberry pie recipe – not a chilled strawberry pie, or a strawberry rhubarb pie -- but a hot strawberry pie.  I looked high and low, but no one seemed to make them (I’m sure there are recipes out there, so don’t be offended if you have one and I did not find/use it!).

After my failed search, I decided to just use a blueberry pie recipe and substitute strawberries. I use about 1/2 of the sugar that the blueberry pie calls for because strawberries are already so sweet. This recipe became an Easter tradition with my brother and sister-in-law.

Crust: 1 cup shortening (½ cup butter, ½ cup Crisco) 3 cups flour 3 Tbsp. sugar 1 tsp. salt ½ cup cool water

Combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Cut in the butter and shortening, leaving large clumps of butter. Stir in the cold water using a fork until the dough comes together when you roll it together with your hands.

Split dough in half and wrap in plastic (I usually skip the wrapping part…). Chill crust while making the filling. You want the butter in the crust to be cold when it goes in the oven.

After about 30 minutes in the refrigerator, roll out your pie crust. Half will form the base of your pie. The other half can be placed on top of your pie once the filling is prepared. For ideas on how to do the top of your pie crust see: and

Filling: 6 cups strawberries 1/4 cup sugar 1 Tbsp. cornstarch Grating of the peel of one lemon 1 tsp. cinnamon

2 tablespoons butter

Preheat the oven to 420 degrees.

Mix the filling ingredients together and place in unbaked pie shell.  Dot the butter in small pieces on the filling.  Cover with pie shell cover, sprinkle with sugar.

Bake for 10 minutes and then reduce the temperature to 350 degrees. Continue baking for 1 hour or until the crust is brown and you can see the butter bubbling out of the holes. Let pie cool before serving.


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