Labour shortages are now causing almost as much disruption in fruit and vegetable production as weather anomalies. There are hardly any seasonal farm hands available throughout the country and in the whole of Europe, let alone applicants for jobs requiring special qualifications. Land owners have no choice but bid against each other in wages, knowing that the quantity and quality of the crop is fundamentally affected by whether they have enough labourers on their farms.
Today, the main obstacle to the future development of horticulture and the development projects of horticultural enterprises is the shortage of labour, with the weather and the lack of capital only coming after that – this is how the president of the FruitVeB Hungarian Interprofessional Organization for Fruit and Vegetable sums up the current situation.
According to their calculations, insufficient labour supply directly and indirectly causes approximately 50-80 billion forints annual damage (loss of production) in the fruit and vegetable sector with a total production value of around 300 billion forints per year. If the processing industry is included, the loss is already close to 100 billion forints for the entire sector.
Ferenc Apáti says that while 15-20 years ago there was still an abundance of cheap labour, now labour supply is very low especially for manual work. "We have come to the point where we no longer dismiss those who are not doing their job properly, we are afraid even to tell them off, or else they stand up and leave."
Although agricultural work would require at least secondary vocational qualifications, employers have to make do with unskilled labourers in 80-90 percent of the cases. But there is also a shortage of such workers, not so much because of salaries, but because few people today want to work outdoors rain or shine, even when it is 35 degrees in the shade. This sector is no longer attractive to young people; most workers are over 50 years of age.
Seasonal workers are not so badly paid, though: in the north-eastern part of the country the daily wage is only around 8 thousand forints, which adds up to 166 thousand forints for 22 working days a month, however, in the central and western parts of the country day labourers are not available for less than 10-12 thousand forints or rather 12-15 thousand a day, which means a net income of 260 thousand forints.
It is not typical in Hungary to receive agricultural workers from abroad; Ukrainian and Romanian labourers rather go to Western Europe, just like the Hungarians, says Ferenc Apáti.
There are no up-to-date figures available as for the number of workers, but the number of full-time employees in the fruit and vegetable sector is estimated to be around 140,000. If part-time and seasonal workers are also included, the total number of people working in this sector must be around 200-250 thousand.
In theory, automation and robotics would offer a solution to labour shortages, but in fruit and vegetable production this is still in its infancy, even in areas where it is possible at all.
In 70-80 but in some cases even 90 percent of the work processes, such as harvesting, pruning or thinning, human labour cannot be replaced, the expert explains.
Although there are picking robots already, it is difficult to teach them how to distinguish between ripe and unripe fruits or vegetables. Harvesting robots are more advanced, but these machines are either not very efficient or they are very expensive. Pruning has not yet been mechanized, and the robotisation of thinning is not yet solved even at the scientific level.
Spraying can already be done with drones, hoeing and other soil works can also be mechanized quite well, but the need for live labour in these works is low anyway. It is the cultivation of field vegetables, e.g. onions, root vegetables, and cabbages that is likely to be the first to be fully automated.
There are only a few weeks or one or two months in a year when casual labour is required for weeding or harvesting/sorting in the case of the totally mechanized field vegetable production.
Open field crops such as pepper or melon need a lot of manual labour both for planting and collecting, but given that this kind of work is only required for up to 3-5 months a year, businesses don’t hire permanent staff for that.
In so-called shoot gardens, where plants are grown in greenhouses, workforce is needed from the planting season in December up to the end of the season in the following November, virtually all year round, so these farms typically hire permanent workers. However, in greenhouses growing lettuce or cabbage, for example, the demand for labour is periodical: need for workers only lasts for 2 months in spring and in autumn.
The sectors with the highest labour demand (e.g., apricots, peaches, apples, raspberries, blackberries, hand-harvested open-field and sprouted vegetables) have suffered a significant - 30-40 percent - decline in the cultivated areas over the past decade.
Apart from a small number of species, each of which grown on a small area, only sectors with relatively limited labour force demand (including elder, walnuts, sour cherries, plums and totally mechanized field vegetables) were able to stagnate or possibly grow slightly.
There are two major phases in fruit production that are particularly labour-intensive. One is pruning, which lasts from late autumn to early spring, and farmers try to have it done by permanent or family workforce. The other is harvesting, which is a period of 1-3 months depending on the type of fruit, which can only be done using seasonal workers.
Ferenc Apáti also said that the competition to obtain the necessary workforce is extremely fierce. Sectors and businesses that can provide work for longer periods have a competitive advantage.
Therefore, in many cases, businesses adjust the production structure accordingly, for example, in addition to strawberries and cherries, also melons, sour cherries, plums and apples are grown, so that they can retain seasonal workers not only for 1-2 months, but for half a year.
The situation is made worse by the fact that all planning is in vain if the region is economically developed with a strong industry and service sector, as all the available workforce is typically absorbed by them. In poorer regions with high unemployment, it is easier to find labourers who can then be taken to other parts of the country, but in that case housing needs to be provided for them for weeks or months.
According to the president of FruitVeB, labour shortages have now become so critical that fruit and vegetable producers have to accept that it is by no means certain that they will have the necessary workforce when they need it. As a result, they are forced to wait with harvesting their crop for longer than necessary, which will, in turn, fundamentally affect both the quantity and the quality of the crop.