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Spanish farmers, fishermen feel COVID-19 fallout

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Madrid (AFP)

The start of spring is usually a profitable time for Sergio Gomez, a strawberry farmer in southern Spain, but the coronavirus pandemic has completely disrupted his harvest this year.

"We have been losing money for five days now!" he said.

Spain, like much of the rest of Europe, has been in a lockdown since mid-March to curb the spread of the virus and this has altered consumers' habits, with people making fewer trips to the supermarket and no longer eating out.

The closure of Spain's borders has added to the burden, leaving farmers struggling to bring in crucial temporary workers to pick produce and care for animals.

One of the hardest-hit crops has been strawberries from Huelva in the southern region of Andalusia, which supplies Europe with 90 percent of the fruit at this time of the year.

Demand for strawberries has been halved this year, according to farmers' unions.

And with the border with Morocco closed, only one-third of the temporary workers who usually come to pick strawberries were able to make the trip.

"The whole sector is very frightened," said Gomez, who exports 70 percent of his crop to France, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Demand is "on a roller coaster", he added.

"One day I have an order and I have to work an hour extra, the next I am twiddling my thumbs."

Manuel Piedra, secretary general of the UPA farmers' union in Huelva, said people were shopping as little as once every 10 days, causing sales of perishable goods to plunge.

"Consumers have completely changed their habits," he said.

- Missing sheep shearers -

Uncertainty also reigns in the "Sea of Plastic", some 20,000 hectares of greenhouses in the province of Almeria where much of Europe's fruits and vegetables are grown.

"We don't know how the market will react, it's a lottery," said Juan Antonio Criado, a local farmer who next week will start harvesting watermelons for export to Germany.

Adoracion Blanque, head of the provincial branch of farm union ASAJA, said foreign demand for vegetables has "remained practically the same" but farmers were struggling with a shortage of workers due to lockdown restrictions.

The government has pledged 236 million euros ($258 million) to help growers hire 200,000 workers.

"All food products are arriving (in stores) in absolutely normal quantities and qualities," Agriculture Minister Luis Planas said this week.

Livestock farmers will also suffer from travel restrictions.

Gaspar Gonzalez of the Fovex Sat cooperative in the sparsely-populated southwestern region of Extremadura was counting on bringing over workers from Uruguay to shear 100,000 sheep between April and June.

They will arrive this year in May at the earliest.

Finding local replacements will be hard because "here, unfortunately, this profession has disappeared," said Gonzalez.

- Falling prices -

Meanwhile the price of meat has fallen, especially for lamb which has dropped nearly 40 percent.

Demand for meat and fish is down because bars and restaurants that buy a lot are closed.

"Everything sells, but at lower prices," said Jose Malvido, a fisherman from the northwestern region of Galicia who said he had earned nearly half of what he usually does from the sale of turbot and sole.

His wife "moves around a lot" to sell his catch door to door to elderly people during the lockdown, he added.

The price of fish caught by Spanish boats in European waters has dropped by more than half, according to European fishermen's organisation Europeche.

In the Mediterranean, more than 90 percent of boats have simply stopped fishing out of fear of being infected by the virus and a lack of protective equipment, said Basilio Otero, president of the Spain's National Federation of Artisanal Fishing.

In the Bay of Biscay off Spain's northern coast, fishermen have launched their annual mackerel campaign however, even though prices have almost hit rock bottom.

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