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Coronavirus: French farm producers suffering from COVID-19 restrictions

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Coronavirus: French farm producers suffering from COVID-19 restrictions
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In this edition of Unreported Europe, we dig deep into the fears of French farmers, as the Covid-19 pandemic leaves them facing manpower shortages and severely disrupted supply chains.

The local markets that are so much a part of life in many parts of Europe are now closed because of the coronavirus, while borders have been closed to the seasonal workers who normally fill the fields.

Fresh Produce

In the village of Cailloux- Sur- Fontaines, near Lyon, we meet Mickael Bourguignon, who runs his family business on a 120-hectare farm. Bourguignon's grandfather started the farm with just hens, but in 1981 they switched to growing vegetables, and now sell to supermarkets as far away as Marseille.

Bourguignon depends on farmhands from Poland to work the land, and when European borders were closed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, he suddenly lacked staff.

In early April the European Commission called upon member states to facilitate the travel of seasonal farmhands between countries, as this shortfall in staffing began to hit growers across western Europe. But this farmer told Euronews he hadn't seen any difference since that move.

"Right now, we don't feel the benefits of the open borders for seasonal workers," said Mickael Bourguignon. "Maybe this will change in a few weeks' time. But our situation is problematic for today. We suffer from lack of manpower and we do not have seasonal workers who can come to work."

Dorota Fuks is a Polish farm worker at Bourguignon's farm and she said they'll need more people to help.

"Later on in the year, we will need many more people to work here. The harvest season has just started. Usually, we need around 30 to 35 people. Today, we have just 15 people and more hands will be needed," she said.

These labourers are housed in mobile homes, and today some of them are unable to return home because they arrived before the COVID-19 outbreak, while others are still in Poland, unable to travel to France.

The French government called on the local unemployed population to help out.

Dimitri Angelin, 25, is one of them. Usually, he cooks at an upmarket Lyon restaurant, but it's closed due to the pandemic.

"I told myself, instead of staying at home just letting the time pass by, I could do something else," Angelin told Euronews. "I can also top up my unemployment pay with the money I receive for my farm work here."

Boosting unemployment benefit income by helping farmers is perfectly legal. It's one of the schemes put in place to avoid a collapse of the food production process.

But Bourguignon is still worried. He has spinach, corn, onions and lettuces that will need looking after and then harvesting.

"Today," Bourguignon explains, "I have one hectare of lettuce ready to cut. But if the farmer's markets don't change, it's almost certain that I will have to destroy them. Therefore I am asking the French State to lower our charges or even to cancel all of them, at least during this period - which is difficult."

Honey Production

In the Ardèche region, of France, at Saint-Alban-d'Ay, closed Farmer's markets are causing people like beekeeper Francis Gruzelle huge problems. Honey production is already a fragile profession. There are just 75,000 French beekeepers and most of them are small businesses. In the last decade, fifteen thousand gave up and Gruzelle warns more will follow after this crisis.

"COVID-19 and the lockdown are killing thousands of beekeepers' livelihoods. They are the victims of unsold honey and closed farmer's markets... It is a catastrophe. COVID-19 is finishing off beekeepers, who are already crushed by insecticides, pesticides, decimated bee colonies, and spiralling production costs," he tells Euronews.

At the age of 13, Gruzelle received his first hive. Today, he represents 725 beekeepers from the Ardèche and Drôme region as Head of the Regional Professional Beekeepers Association. He himself looks after 75 hives with 70,000 bees.

Gruzelle said the sector is on the brink of collapse, and so he wrote a letter to the Agriculture Minister.

"To save beekeepers," Gruzelle said. "The government should cut VAT in half, hand out sugar subsidies to beekeepers, exempt them from social security contributions and launch a TV campaign to encourage consumers to buy honey again from their local beekeeper."

Vegetable boxes

Jérémy Beroud runs a 20 hectare family farm business in the village of Irigny. He used to sell his produce at eight different markets. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, he's now set up a completely different distribution system via the phone and social media:

Customers can order delivery boxes that Jeremy and his team prepare.

"The shutdown of farmer's markets was a brutal shock," said Beroud. "A lot of questions came up: What should we do with our products and with all the vegetables still in the ground, are they going to get picked soon? All this work for nothing? But there was no time to stay in panic mode: the city hall was reactive. They immediately understood that following the shutdown of the farmer's markets different logistics were needed to feed the population and those producers still needed to get their work done in this economically difficult situation."

Beroud's cousin used to drive armoured trucks full of money, but now he transports boxes of fruit and vegetables.

All over Lyon, district mayors and producers set up a network of "Drive-Ins" and distribution points with fewer people, and also with strict social distancing controls.

Corinne Barret, President, Neighbourhood Association Dauphiné / Sans-Souci in the third arrondissement of Lyon. She said the new way of selling fresh produce is proving popular.

"The residents prefer to buy local products instead of going to a supermarket. This is also an opportunity for fruit and vegetable producers to work. The fruit and vegetables continue to grow, it would be a shame to waste them and not to harvest the crops."

Volunteer farmworker Jean-Lous Vignes from Les Saveurs Irignoises, who helps sell the boxes said, "This is the very first time I am doing this in this way: protecting myself, putting on gloves...well, they have some holes in them, I am going to change them..., wearing a mask, telling everyone to keep a distance, to keep safe and to keep us safe as well, that's it."

Usually, France imports around 40 per cent of its fruit and vegetables. That figure has since dropped.

What do the customers think?

"I think that closing the farmer's markets is a good idea," said Camille, a Lyon resident. "Normally, everyone is in close contact with each other and we don't know for sure that everything is disinfected. - Right now we have a small alternative to the huge farmer's markets, which is cool."

Délia lives in Lyon and said, "I think, it's difficult to put in place all those security measures needed to be respected by everybody in farmer's markets. That's why this new system isn't bad at all. But I fully understand that it's really difficult for producers. If I may add another point: I have to admit, it's a bit expensive. This is the first time I've come to such a place, but I am not sure that I will be here every week."

Farmers struggling to find enough manpower, producers at a loss as to how to distribute their products and pay their bills, and consumers facing new constraints on how they access fresh food - just some of the challenges from the coronavirus crisis which are likely to have a lasting impact on daily life.