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Coronavirus: From Alpine ski slopes to vegetable picking

Nathan Steele
Image caption Nathan Steele jarred his back in the first week: "It's really tough"

In an asparagus field on the edge of the North York Moors an unlikely group of people are harvesting crops.

"I was doing a ski season before this in the Alps. It's been a massive career change," says Nathan Steele.

Wearing a bright lime green jacket, the 25-year-old ski instructor stands out against the dark brown soil.

Sitting on top of a harvesting machine, he moves smoothly from row to row, cutting off ripe spears as he goes and depositing them in his wicker baskets.

"You don't earn a lot, but it's better than nothing," he says.

Just six weeks ago Nathan was hurtling down the slopes in the French Alps. When the Val d'Isère ski resort closed down at the end of March, his income disappeared overnight.

The former chef first moved back home to north east London, but couldn't find work. So, he upped sticks and moved 250 miles north to Yorkshire to pick asparagus.

"I get up at 5am most days. It is really tough," he says. "The first week I jarred my back, but you do get used to it. I would recommend it to people who are sitting at home watching Netflix."

In this one field, there are people from all kinds of backgrounds including a cleaner, landscape gardener, outdoor pursuits teacher and local school students. All have found themselves laid off, furloughed or suddenly with a lot extra time on their hands due to the lockdown. They are among the first to answer the rallying call from farmers for a modern day land army.

For decades, British farmers have relied on migrant labour to work in the fields and packing houses. But coronavirus travel restrictions have virtually cut off the supply of workers, who came mainly from eastern Europe.

Farmer Tom Spilman, based at Sessay, near Thirsk, in North Yorkshire, put out a post on Facebook appealing for British workers to help bring in the asparagus crop and the strawberry harvest later in the year.

"There is no alternative. We either get the English workers or we don't pick the crops. They would just go to waste and they'd be empty shelves in the shops," Tom said. "We usually only get one or two Brits who venture into the fields, but they never last very long, he added.'

In normal times his workforce, which swells between 80 and 90 people during peak season, is made up of returnee workers from Poland and the Czech Republic who live on site in caravans. This year is different. The majority of those in the pack house bundling up asparagus spears are university and school students who have had their exams cancelled.

Image caption Tens of thousands more pickers like Charles Robinson are needed

Among them is Rippon Grammar School student Charles Robinson, who was "bored sat at home" after his AS Level exams were cancelled due to the lockdown.

The 17-year-old admitted he wasn't "keen to begin with as it's not the type of job that people have wanted to do.

"It's the first few days when it is really hard on your body, and that's enough to put most people off. But once you get past that point it get easier," he said. But a few weeks in, he says he is now enjoying the exercise and fresh air, as well as the extra money in his pocket.

The National Farmers' Union (NFU) says up to 70,000 fruit and vegetable pickers are needed, with peak demand coming at the end of May and start of June.

With echoes of war time appeals, the government launched its Pick for Britain campaign last month. There are a range of roles available across the UK, from pickers and packers, to plant husbandry and tractor or forklift drivers.

One recruiter said 50,000 people responded to the initial call for farm workers. Of those, 6,000 went for interviews, but so far only a couple of hundred have taken up jobs. It is early in the season, though, and they are anticipating the job take up rate will increase.

Tom Bilborough runs the recruitment platform UniWrk, which connects agricultural businesses with the workers they need. His app was initially aimed at students but he said there has been a huge interest from people from all backgrounds.

"It is more people putting themselves forward because they want to help, not just because of the money," he said. "So people higher up in businesses too even at director level. They are saying we want to come and help the country."

But this is tough, physical work that most Brits haven't previously tended to want to do. And there is some concern from farmers about how long some workers will last.

When work dried up for make-up artist Emma Richards, from Beverley, East Yorkshire, she swapped glamorous studio shoots for ten-hour shifts on a potato farm.

Image copyright Emma Richard
Image caption Emma Richards decided farm work was not for her

The 23-year-old said she hurt everywhere after a few hours. "You are using your upper body so much. I was just trying to look for something to get out of the house and help the country", she said.

After a few days, Emma decided farm work wasn't for her and she is now working in a supermarket dealing with home delivery orders.

Photographer Paul Smith, 45, also from Beverley, had a similar experience. "I felt like I'd done a round with Mike Tyson," he told the BBC. "I got to learn and appreciate just how difficult it is to get food out of the ground and on to the table."

Paul spent eight days working in the potato field and is now waiting for an employment agency to deploy him to his next picking job. But more - many more - people like Paul are needed.

Farmers say that despite an initial swell of interest in farm work, they still need thousands of people to sign up in the months ahead to prevent crops from rotting in the fields.

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