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Pick your own fruit: Thousands of Finns replace foreign workers save summer strawberry harvest

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A young man picking strawberries in Hollola, southern Finland, July 2, 2020
A young man picking strawberries in Hollola, southern Finland, July 2, 2020   -   Copyright  AFPTV
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It’s usual to see the strawberry fields of Finland dotted with labourers in the first weeks of July, peak harvest time. What’s unusual the village of Hollola is that, for the first time in two decades, many of the pickers are Finnish.

"We've only had foreign workers for the last 22 years. But because of the exceptional coronavirus situation, we couldn't get enough pickers from Ukraine – so as soon as coronavirus came to Finland, we started to recruit Finnish workers," said Vesa Koivistoinen, owner of Finland's largest strawberry farm in the southern village of Hollola.

Finland normally needs about 16,000 seasonal workers a year, who mainly come from abroad, Kati Kuula of the agricultural union MTK told AFP news agency.

When travel restrictions were imposed in the spring, farmer representatives and authorities feared a labour shortage and launched a recruitment drive.

One of the largest, the government-backed #Seasonwork social media campaign, features a tanned, blonde couple standing proud in a wheat field, and calls for "every available pair of hands" to "secure domestic food on Finnish dinner tables".

Many of those answering the call were otherwise facing financial hardship because of the pandemic – like Sari, a 52-year-old self-employed masseuse whose own business dried up.

"I'm the daughter of a farmer and I've been working in strawberry fields when I was young so this is the first time after a long, long pause,” she said.

Struggling to find work these days is 29-year-old Janne Erola, who also turned to fruit-picking: "I've got a lot of work on my CV, I've got a full two-sided paper after a ten-year work history, I've been working a lot. But it's still hard to find a good job."

The harvest has been saved, but at a cost. Farmers have had to raise their piecework rates, to make up for the fact the new recruits are much slower than professional migrant workers.

And while Finns are coming to the rescue of the country’s strawberry harvest, the fate of the country’s bilberries, a small European variety of wild blueberries, looks far more uncertain.

The berries are usually picked from Finnish forests by workers flown in from Thailand, but pandemic travel restrictions mean none will be admitted this year.