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Currently farmers in Western countries are warning governments that without foreign workers their fields will be impossible to harvest:

“We are in need of a lot of foreign workers,” Eystein Ruud, a greenhouse farm owner and chairman of the Norwegian Horticultural Association, told The Globe and Mail. “If we cannot get these workers in the coming weeks, our farmers won’t risk putting a lot of plants in the soil. That may affect the food supply.”

At the same time Western nations are about to face unprecedented levels of unemployment due to the COVID-related shutdowns. On the face of it, this seems like a perfect match - people who lost their jobs could now work their local fields, earning a salary and supplying much needed food for the nation. So why is this considered a problem, rather than a blessing in disguise? Shouldn't governments be happy they have job openings for the unemployed?

I do understand that working the fields is difficult and only young people could do it, but currently a lot of young people lack a job too, so that looks like a manageable problem.

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    Isn't this an economics rather than political question? It is hard work, for low pay that requires you to move regularly to find new work. Why would people want to do it? In general people prefer stable lives living in one location, farmers do not pay pickers enough for this to be possible and so people do not want to do it. – Jontia Apr 3 at 12:55
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    This question might be a good fit for Economics SE. – user76284 Apr 3 at 19:52
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    @Jontia : indeed, due to the many safety nets and due to the general opulence in Western countries, no one starves to death. Therefore many prefer unemployment instead of working "unpleasant" jobs their grandparent's (or great-grandparent's) generation would not have avoided, as they were literally forced to do it in order to survive. – vsz Apr 6 at 7:33
  • business.financialpost.com/commodities/agriculture/… "Farm work is “not unskilled labour,” Fraser said. It can take weeks, or months, to bring a trainee up to speed, so flooding farms with inexperienced workers could slow down harvests, increase labour costs, and lower the quality and market value of crops. “If a picker bruises a strawberry, the market value goes down,” he said. “It doesn’t take very long before you tip from being a profitable operation to an unprofitable one.”" – C'est Moi Apr 26 at 18:34
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I think these countries are in fact approaching this as a problem that has an obvious solution, as you suggest. The issue lies, however, with convincing their populace to work these seasonal jobs, and the inherent nature of seasonal agricultural work.

Firstly, the levels of unemployment are not necessarily going to be as bad as you might think, at least in some countries. Many western countries, including Norway, which you mention, and later, the UK, have implemented schemes which will allow companies to keep employees who have been furloughed due to the crisis on the payroll by covering a large portion of their wages. These schemes don't stop claimants from taking another job, at least in the UK's case, but potentially reduce the need for them to do so.

Secondly, the nature of this work means that for this to be a long-term job choice, workers need to be flexible and able to travel around the country. The BBC points out that

One reason overseas workers are recruited for these picking roles is that farmers require temporary, flexible workers who will move around the country following the crops. It is often difficult for local people to fill these roles as they are extremely busy for a short space of time - for example, two months to pick apples - with no work for the rest of the year.

So while it might be easy to find workers in one area of the country, it is currently infeasible given the COVID-19 crisis for workers to travel around the country as previously. Therefore, a much larger number of local workers need to be found in order to meet with local demand, rather than smaller groups of seasonal workers meeting the demand nationally.

Additionally, western Europeans are unused to this sort of work. According to the Independent:

It's fair to say that British workers have turned their noses up at seasonal farm work in recent years, perhaps partly due to the availability of other, more secure jobs in more comfortable surroundings.

"It's hard work and the Eastern Europeans are experienced at what they do," says Oliver Shooter, owner of AE Lenton, which runs a group of farms between Skegness and Boston in Lincolnshire, the centre of England's vegetable production.

"It's not rocket science but it is quite a skilled job that these guys do," he says. A top picker needs to know and apply supermarkets' exacting standards for exactly how fruit and veg must look, as well as how to cut it and pack it. For that they'll earn £12 an hour if they're good. Many farms also provide free or subsidised accommodation.

The seasonal workers that farms usually rely on, that know their trade and are experienced are unable to be used, so farmers are again being forced to engage a larger workforce than normal, in order to achieve a similar standard of work. This will, of course, entail higher costs, a longer training period, and presumably, a lower yield as mistakes are made.

Governments are trying to deal with this problem by pushing the solution you suggest - the Independent reports again:

So acute is the need that the government is reportedly readying its own "Pick for Britain" campaign taking inspiration from the Land Army that tilled the fields during the Second World War.

In Norway, the government has introduced a scheme which will encourage employees laid off by their employer to work in agricultural roles:

New legislation means that if a worker is laid off and takes up an agricultural role, he or she will be able to earn both a salary from the farmer as well as half his or her unemployment benefit.

It's not so much that the solution to the problem isn't obvious, it's that due to a combination of the nature of seasonal agricultural work, and the complications introduced by the current crisis, the problem is harder to solve than at first glance.

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    "it is quite a skilled job that these guys do." Watch an experienced farmworker pick radishes for 33 seconds and you'll get an idea why farmers rely on experienced workers and why, say, a cashier might not want this job. – Zach Lipton Apr 3 at 17:59
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    Comments deleted. Please try to keep the comments relevant to improving the answer. This is not the place to debate who misunderstood what part of free market economy. – Philipp Apr 7 at 9:11
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  • There are significant efforts to recruit unemployed or underemployed locals for seasonal farm work.
  • In many cases seasonal farm work is actually skilled work, at least if it is to be done quickly and correctly (i.e. pick only the ripe fruit, not all of it). While that can be learned, teaching requires formal or more likely informal instruction. It won't be possible to exchange a large part of the workforce at the same time.
    • Agriculture might be hesitant to take on loads of newbies and train them if they might disappear in a few weeks. Many distancing and lockdown measures are only valid for a few weeks as of now, even if an extension seems probable.
  • There are anecdotal reports that workers in western industrialized countries don't like hard, badly paid manual labor if they can help it. And it would be bad for the total economy to channel university students or skilled workers from other sectors into agriculture.

Follow-Up: There are news reports now that both German and Eastern European government want to enable the travel of seasonal agricultural workers with some quarantine safeguards. Seems these workers are essential enough to both economies.

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    I may add to the skilled work perspective that a number of seasonal workers from Eastern Europe to whom I've talked in Germany run a (small) farm at home and come for a few weeks at a time to do seasonal farm work e.g. in Germany when their farm doesn't need them. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Apr 3 at 18:24
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    As for the don't like hard work, there's also a correlation between being unemployed and being ill (there are e.g. statistics that umemployed get on average a whole lot more medication than employed). Someone who lost their job and/or cannot find a new one with a chronic disease may often not be suited for agricultural work. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Apr 3 at 18:30
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    If the work is harder than the pay, farmers should increase salary, not import poverished people. Capitalism can solve this problem. – Stian Yttervik Apr 4 at 9:20
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    @StianYttervik Capitalism is already at work with big discounters "dictating" prices and quality rules that forbid higher wages or less skilled/productive workes – Hagen von Eitzen Apr 4 at 15:09
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    @StianYttervik: what makes you think a capitalist wants a "free market" when he is the producer? Of course, what he really wants is a monopoly instead. If the rules of the (free) market allow him a natural monopoly then he's "all for" the free market. Otherwise, you can indeed bet he'll lobby the gov't for other things, like subsidies, erecting barriers of entry for his competitors, e.g. via extensive regulations (like licensing), etc. – Fizz Apr 5 at 0:07
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Lower Salary requests:

Seasonal workers at the end of the season might go back to their country where there's a lower cost of living (at least for now).

Furthermore, if they have to support a family, or save to buy a home, it is probably still at the prices of the country of origin, and therefore they are probably willing to accept lower salaries.

Lack of Knowledge of Labour rights:

Local workers know the local laws better, and in cases of abuse they might know how to defend themselves or they might know where to find support. Local workers are more likely to know each other, and support each other. They are also more likely to organize themselves or join a union.

Summing up the two things: It is evident that migrant workers are often isolated, and, knowing almost nothing of the local laws, are easier to exploit.

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    This explains why they prefer easily exploitable migrant workers during normal times, but if there was a situation where migrant workers weren't available, you would think that farm owners would prefer to pay more rather than let the crops rot in the field, right? – divibisan Apr 3 at 22:56
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    @divibisan I don't know that they'd prefer it, exactly, so much as feel forced to do it. But the broader issue is the profit margin on crops-- depending on the crop, there may not be much or any space to increase pay for harvesters without increasing price. If consumers won't accept those prices then the crops can rot on the farm for free or rot on the shelves of stores after paying the normal prices for processing and shipping, plus more than usual on worker pay-- not too hard a call. Demand for many agricultural goods is going to be pretty elastic. – Upper_Case Apr 3 at 23:14
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    @FluidCode It's not possible and not desirable anyway to blame specific people or groups for prices that are determined by the market, i.e. a complicated social construct that involves lots of actors. You can blame policy-makers who are not willing to adjust the parameters of this social framework (the market) to encourage paying fair wages (which is possible in simple, unbureaucratic ways, for example national minimum wages that are good enough for local workers). – Nobody Apr 4 at 16:02
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    @Nobody The fact that manipulating the market is using it as intended is exactly the point. People are 100% responsible for everything in the market, which is why a true "free market" is completely impossible. – barbecue Apr 4 at 17:58
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    @barbecue If you consider all participants in the market, then of course they are 100% responsible. But if you consider just a single one then that one is exactly 0% responsible (unless it's a monopolist or something) because the market has in-built mechanisms which prevent particular actors from having too much influence. Instead the outcome is pretty much predetermined from the legislative basis of the market. You sound like a leftist. I am too, but I don't claim that the market doesn't work, I claim it works exactly as intended and could work differently given other political intentions. – Nobody Apr 4 at 18:52
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I would dispute all the premises of the question. Until now, there are no unprecedented levels of unemployment due to COVID19-related measures across the Western world. The only country where I have heard that the lockdowns resulted in immediate massive unemployment is the US.

By contrast, many European countries had higher level of unemployment (as defined, e.g., by the ILO) to begin with but haven't seen a huge surge in people looking for work, instead electing to put temporary measures in place to bridge the gap in other ways (subsidies to companies so that they make payroll while putting employees on furlough, relaxed rules for sick days, etc.)

Incidentally, most countries haven't shutdown their economy entirely, only physical shops, bars, restaurants and other venues where many people congregate. That leaves large parts of the economy running, at least in part. Even a partial shutdown, together with the uncertainty and other restrictions will result in a recession and an increase in unemployment but these effects are never immediate in European economies.

While unemployment hasn't necessarily surged, there are still many people who are underemployed: people who are keeping their job but are on furlough and have time on their hand, independent contractors and temp workers, shop and business owners, people who were about to enter the job market or left/lost their job recently, students whose school has closed, etc. They could possibly fill the gap.

But the other premise is wrong too. As pointed out in other answers, governments have, in fact, been actively trying to match them to these jobs, e.g. in Germany, in France, in the UK and in Norway. And announcing very publicly that there is a problem with missing foreign workers and painting this work as a way to safeguard the food supply is part of a strategy to achieve that. Otherwise, people might not even think about what is otherwise a rather unattractive job far away from their residence.

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    Where I live, restaurants are allowed to be open for take-out and delivery. Most restaurants don't do take-out or delivery, but I'm sure business is relatively booming for those which do. – user253751 Apr 5 at 23:28
  • @user253751 Yes, that's the case where I live as well but everything I hear or read suggests business is actually slower than usual. – Relaxed Apr 6 at 14:48
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Well, first of all, a far more effective solution would be to send low-risk incarcerated offenders out into the fields. This would help to reduce overcrowding in incarcerated populations (lowering the transmission rate of Covid-19 there), could be easily justified as part of the prisoners' reparations to society, and rewarded with reduced sentences or increased privileges. Win-win for everyone involved.

There are a number of problems with trying to entice normal citizens in industrialized societies out to work in the agriculture sector.

  • Most citizens in industrialized nations would object to that work for egoic reasons. They view themselves as white collar or service workers, and cannot stomach the idea of hard, sweaty, dirty, physical labor. They might do it on a limited scale for patriotic reasons (the iconic 'victory garden' model of WWII), but not as part of a faceless horde sent out to pick grapes or harvest wheat for someone else.
  • Most citizens in industrialized nations are unsuited to the work. They are not physically fit, can not tell a weed from a stalk of grain, and are unaccustomed to the vagrant lifestyle most agricultural workers live. Doing this kind of work would exhaust them quickly, lowering their immune responses and leaving them exposed to a host of illnesses (from heatstroke and heart attacks to the common flu and Covid-19) that would render them useless in the fields and further stress the medical system
  • Most citizens in industrialized nations — at least the ones most likely to respond to this request — are urban, far from the fields they would be asked to work. This necessitates mass transportation, temporary camps to house them in different locales, and other activities that would force these people into large groups and unsanitary condition, increasing the spread of Covid-19.

And let's not forget that while this tactic may have been used effectively during the New Deal to put citizens back to work, it was also used by Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, and other authoritarian regimes. It is a system that seems reasonable on the face of it, but is particularly easy to abuse. Do we want to come out of this crisis with new laws mandating that homeless populations, people on court-ordered drug rehabilitation, or people on welfare must become seasonal agricultural workers; or maybe new laws in the Deep South that funnel black citizens into jails so they can be sent out to pick cotton, like the old days? We should take a pause for thought before going down this road.

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  • "And let's not forget that while this tactic may have been used effectively during the New Deal to put citizens back to work, it was also used by Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, and other authoritarian regimes." - what does that have to do with anything? – user253751 Apr 5 at 23:29
  • @user253751: what, you didn't finish reading that paragraph, where I explained why it's relevant? It's generally wise to consider the secondary ramifications of political acts, because you can be damned sure people you despise are looking for political angles they can manipulate to your disadvantage. I'm not suggesting you should be paranoid, but don't be a dewy-eyed newb, either. – Ted Wrigley Apr 5 at 23:34
  • It sounds a lot like a "Hitler ate sugar" argument. – user253751 Apr 5 at 23:37
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    @user253751: Hitler did eat sugar, but so far as I know he didn't use sugar to solidify power over other people. – Ted Wrigley Apr 5 at 23:39
  • This is an entertaining answer, but it is also a bit over the top. Was it intended as a serious answer? I imagine a member of Putin's troll army could have written such an answer. – Peter Mortensen Apr 6 at 15:05
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This question's premise is fundamentally flawed because it ignores a simple fact about agricultural work:

Local workers don't want to do it.

The reasons behind this are numerous, but the primary two are:

  • Agricultural work is seen as being "below" locals' social status.
  • Agricultural work is seen as disproportionately difficult for the remuneration provided.

These are social and economic issues, not political ones.

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  • That is far from the only reason. Consider what happens along the entire supply chain if farmers have to increase their prices due to having higher costs due to employing local labour. Consider what those costs do to the prices consumers are charged. Consider what that does to inflation. Then, consider what happens to the smaller farmers who don't have the purchasing power to hire foreign workers and are thus forced to pay higher prices to employ local, versus the big conglomerates who can hire foreign and keep costs down. "Pay better" is an infantile response to all these factors. – Ian Kemp Apr 4 at 22:21
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    These factors are all modifiable. And no justification for maintaining poverty wages. And considering hiring foreign workers being impossible is the point of the question defence of the status quo is no longer a reasonable position. – Jontia Apr 5 at 7:42
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    @Jontia The justification for poverty wages is that the free market said so, no? The free market wants to push prices down to the lowest possible price. The lowest possible prices means paying what locals would call poverty wages, to people who aren't locals and don't call them poverty wages. This will even out in a few decades once those people have amassed enough money that their idea of a poverty wage matches our (the locals') idea. Then you will see equal proportions of locals and immigrants working on farms. – user253751 Apr 5 at 23:30
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On top of all the other reasons, employers don't like to hire in regular positions people who took "nonstandard"/gig jobs. So, if you're a receptionist but suddenly you put farm work on your CV, you may have trouble finding employment later on anything else but temp farm jobs. Of course, these habits (of the employers) can change, but there's a chicken and egg problem here with such change happening in [Western] society.

Also most [Western] people (big surprise) actually prefer regular jobs, if possible, as opposed to "gigs" (in agriculture or elsewhere)

Amidst all the hype about the choice and flexibility of the ‘gig economy’, new research from the University of Auckland suggests most people prefer a regular nine-to-five-style job.

Moreover, when people start working in so-called gig jobs, their chances of switching to a conventional job later are surprisingly low. [...]

The difference was more dramatic for people with high and low levels of education compared to medium levels.

For example, she says, highly educated people who had a standard job at one point in time were nearly eight times more likely to also have a standard job at a later point than those who had had a nonstandard job.

Also

“For a long time there’s been this belief that people, especially young people, prefer the freedom – and lack of office politics – of nonstandard work. But our study shows that most young people – like older people – actually want regular jobs,” she says.

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    But why would you put farm work on your CV in the first place? I certainly never have - nor the construction jobs and similar that I had before getting a degree. – jamesqf Apr 5 at 2:05
  • @jamesqf It shows you have discipline, motivation, etc etc etc. Seriously though. Most people in Western countries don't want to work on a farm (even though the farms need to be worked on). The fact that you did work on a farm and even wanted to does say a lot about your character. – user253751 Apr 5 at 23:32
  • In the Covid-19 context, I don't see how this answer works. There's nothing standard right now. – MSalters Apr 6 at 9:10
  • Indeed. Among many HR people there is the notion that only the last job counts. Even if you have 40 years of experience prior to that. – Peter Mortensen Apr 6 at 15:11
  • @user253751: Not so much about my character as the fact that I had gotten in the habit of eating regularly, and wanted to keep doing that :-) – jamesqf Apr 6 at 19:59
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Another problem seems to be that supermarkets drive food waste as this report shows...and offers some great longer-term solutions.

But in the short-term, the government could choose to support small farmers in getting people to work on their farms e.g. with the skilled Romanian workers managing teams of less-skilled British workers on farms who would in turn learn new skills from Romanian workers. Whilst this might not be anyone's first choice of a job, it fills an important gap and could even highlight the real importance of such skilled work in future. And whilst it's not ideal for people to be moving around the country in a pandemic, there is no problem in doing so for essential work (which this clearly is). There probably needs to be more flexibility about working hours too, so that people can work there for 2 or 3 days per week instead of a full week. Another possibility, arrange communal transport for anyone close enough to work so that they don't have to stay on the farm (not sure why it is essential to live on the farm)? And if the government could agree to furlough people for 6 months after the seasonal work ends, that might just encourage people to take up the jobs. In fact, it would be one way to support seasonal work generally (Sweden offers 80% of salary as unemployment benefit for first 3 months of unemployment).

Just a few thoughts anyway....

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Same data as other answers, but more abstractly...

Urban Sprawl -- unlike say 1800, modern communities have been either planned to, (or permitted to), develop in a way that drives small local farms out of business in favor of large farms near and far. Hence the existing domestic pool of needed workers live relatively far from the farms, and the means of commuting locally available workers to the farm are insufficient and expensive. "It's the commute."

Big agriculture rose up in part from a history of Slavery, Peonage, Debt Bondage, Day Labor, et al -- so that large modern farms have grown to rely upon artificially inexpensive labor, not a living wage for a local worker. Big agriculture also externalizes (i.e. nationalizes) some of its costs, so that the grocery store price of a banana never includes its full share of the cost of a national army or navy with which to prevent foreign pickers from negotiating to raise their own wages, nor the infrastructure costs of superhighways with which to nationally distribute those bananas; and on a secondary level, such prices don't include the costs of the consequential harms done by having highways (e.g. pollution, homogenized culture, etc.), or by nationalizing corporate warfare, (e.g. its induced grudges can become kindling for terrorism, general warfare, etc.). The resulting globalism provides an artificially impoverished environment from which to import inexpensive migrant labor, but its supply chains are vulnerable to pandemics.

The commuting advantage of migrant labor is that replaces a back and forth daily commute from the worker's home to a farm to a single seasonal commute, and the migrant worker need only commute from a some makeshift dorm or barracks on the farm itself to that farm's nearby crops.

The cost of living differential between a migrant worker's homeland and a local worker's home is substantial. A local US worker with a high cost of living would find it difficult to get by on seasonal picker wages, whereas it's not unusual for a Jamaican migrant with a lower cost of living to send wages home with which to support a fairly large family.

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