What do the last string quartets written by Ludwig van Beethoven have in common with asparagus? No, this is not a joke with a punchline coming up. What it is, is a rhetorical question. Which is to ask whether classical chamber music is more important than food on the table. This plainly begs the question some may say, pointing to a prime example of petitio principii in terms of classical logic. Putting that aside for a moment, let me contend that my postulate is worthy and fit: the arts nourish our soul; comestibles keep us alive. Whether we really 'need' both is controvertible. We certainly consume both. Quite why we do that is because we value both. As ever, there is a price to be paid, not just in the sense of a bill to be met — so that working musicians on stage and farmers tending the fields can make a living — but also in terms of what stresses these activities put on the environment.
Now this puts me in mind of a saying variously, if wrongly, attributed to Sitting Bull, Chief of the Sioux tribes or Chief Seattle, of the Suquamish tribes: "When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money." (For the record, the earliest instance is found in a collection of essays published in 1972 entitled “Who is the Chairman of This Meeting?” In the chapter 'Conversations with North American Indians', Alanis Obomsawin uses these words, and is described as an Abenaki from the Odanak reserve, about seventy miles northeast of Montreal. The saying became a motto. Since then it was rapidly taken up by environmental activists, famously by the organisation Greenpeace.)
As many of you reading this blog will know, I have lived in Germany since 1982, and took German citizenship last year. What concerns many farmers here is that the recent entry ban on Eastern European seasonal workers imposed because of the Corona pandemic brings a serious grievance into focus: the working conditions for the temporary harvest labourers in the fields of Germany are usually pretty miserable. The vast majority of well over a quarter of a million employees receive the statutory minimum wage, which is currently just short of 10€ per hour. The employer moreover deducts money for accommodation, among other things. Time and again, fraudulent calculations of piecework wages allow actual remuneration to fall below the prescribed minimum wage. Much accommodation is indescribably bad, with cramped shared rooms in containers, and run-down, unhygienic lavatories. These people have to work hard for this: lifting asparagus in all weathers. The working conditions in agriculture are simply neither attractive nor competitive. The large discounters here promise, for example, at least 12€ gross per hour for a job in sales or logistics. Physically, that is usually less demanding and cleaner than constantly bending over and working in a field in blazing sunlight. These are the reasons why only few people from Germany help out in the agricultural sector.
The same holds true back in the UK.The British farming industry currently needs to fill almost 100,000 picking jobs for fruit vegetables, otherwise a scarcity of fresh comestibles may become a reality, as produce is simply left to rot in the fields. Almost 100% of seasonal workers in Britain have traditionally come from eastern European countries such as Romania or Bulgaria. All efforts in recent years to induce British labourers to work the fields of that green and pleasant land have failed miserably. But all of this began pre-Brexit. And there is good anecdotal evidence of farms hiring a couple of hundred workers, of whom maybe four or five were Brits, only to see this tiny minority drop out suffering from acute symptoms of Fragum defatigatio on day two.
What, then, of the raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries, which will ripen in May and June? The significant shortfall in workers from outside the UK is of huge concern to British farmers at present. It would seem that large farms have even considered chartering flights to bring in labour from eastern Europe, but these plans have been foiled by border restrictions and a more or less nationwide lockdown, the situation further compounded by grounded airlines. Flying in fruit pickers can not be the solution. It is rather like the flying Bishops of the Church of England who came into being in 1993 at the time of approval of the ordination of women to the priesthood.They were, just for the record, all male of course, and were charged with offering pastoral oversight to parishes which would not accept the ministry of women priests. There are so many people in the UK who are out of work and in need of an income. But has the tired old mantra of ‘get out and get a job’ ever held true? And is there some kind of moral responsibility to the country where one lives and its economy? Should composers, whose income forecast for the rest of 2020 might well be as dire as many other individuals in many other branches or industries actually be forced to go out and lift asparagus or pick strawberries? Answers to these perhaps not so rhetorical questions I have none. A heads up: the blog New Utopias is simply food for thought. In this case, food on the plate.
Thus, if farmers were to pay their temporary workers more, would they would find more local labour? And are there enough unskilled or indeed skilled people in Germany who would be interested in temporary jobs in agriculture? Well, large asparagus farms needing workers in four figure numbers at a stroke for their huge areas under cultivation are unlikely to find enough people locally. Smaller farms, on the other hand, will be able to fill their needs more easily. The irony or, if you will, simple fact is that consumers need not fear the consequences of harvest workers being paid more fairly. In the shops, the price of asparagus would only rise by a few cents.
All this reminds me of an excellent cartoon some years back in the British satirical magazine "Private Eye", where the sign in the first frame has the words, emblazoned in large letters, 'Pick your own strawberries'. In the second frame we read 'Pick your own bloody strawberries'.
More on Beethoven anon . . .