This time last year, the Polish harvest season was well underway – with farmers across the country playing a vital role in supplying fruit and vegetables for manufacturers and consumers across Europe. In 2020, however, the COVID-19 pandemic caused significant disruption to the agro supply chain, and Polish farmers have faced unprecedented difficulties as they harvest their crops.

For Helena Pawelec, owner of a family farm in Poland, the COVID-19 pandemic created numerous challenges for her business. The most pressing problem was, undoubtedly, the shortage of pickers as social distancing measures were introduced and borders closed – with nearby Ukraine shutting their borders on the 27th March. On a typical year, her farm would normally hire 10 workers to handpick the strawberries in her fields, but this year’s workers were prevented from travelling throughout April, May and most of June.

“Everything was dependent on whether the Ukraine-Poland border would open,” says Helena. “Everything else – from fertilisers to transportation – was accessible, the only problem was labour.”

This story was familiar for A. Szczepanik , another of our key Polish suppliers who has 3 hectares of raspberries and 1 hectare of strawberries, and who normally employs 30 pickers for the harvest. “70% of my workers are normally Ukrainian, and so at the peak of the pandemic there was a real concern that only 20-30% of my total yield would be picked,” says A. Szczepanik.

Despite these difficult circumstances, both farms worked hard to meet health guidelines to ensure the safety of their workers. “Since the very first day precautions were introduced, we have restricted access from outside of the farm,” says Helena. “Deliveries such as fertilizers are left at the farm gate before being processed, and on the farm, we have introduced more disinfectant, nitrile gloves and a robust handwashing regime.”

“We’ve been following the recommendations of SANEPID (Państwowa Inspekcja Sanitarna), which is Poland’s public health agency,” adds A. Szczepanik. “We’ve been using masks, nitrile gloves and hand disinfectant to keep the virus at bay. Transportation hasn’t been a problem for us, fortunately, as I transport my fruit to the collection point with my own lorry – so I know that it’s in safe hands from start to finish.”

Although this harvest season has been challenging for both Helena and A. Szczepanik, they are determined to keep the supply chain moving. Indeed, as the virus’ spread begins to slow down, and as restrictions start to relax, Ukrainian pickers are making their way across the Polish border to help with picking. Nevertheless, costs are still a concern. “We are of course worried about rising labour prices – alongside the costs of purchasing various forms of PPE, and both accommodation and food and drink for our workers. We expect that fruit across Europe will become more expensive as a result of COVID-19,” says Helena.

Supporting our key suppliers
Here at SVZ, we recognise that our suppliers have experienced unprecedented difficulties this harvest season. We hope that by raising awareness of the challenges these farmers are facing, we can kickstart a broader conversation and, where possible, offer practical help to secure the supply of fruit and vegetables ingredients across Europe. By working together, we’re confident that we can help keep the agro supply chain moving.

Find out more about SVZ’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic by getting in touch with us today.

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