Fruit farmers in Flanders

In the Flemish province of Limburg, to the east of Brussels, you’ll find apples and pears growing in abundance. The town of Sint-Truiden has even been given the name ‘the fruit capital of Belgium’.

In a typical year, the region employs thousands of seasonal workers from all over Europe to help on farms. It’s labour intensive work, from planting fruit trees in spring to harvesting crops in the autumn, and sorting the produce to be shipped worldwide.

Picking pears © Healthy fruit, 2017

Picking pears © Healthy fruit, 2017

Crisis strikes

However, 2020 was a year like no other. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, fewer seasonal workers travelled to Belgium from abroad. As a result, the industry was left short-staffed, at a time of crisis when it was crucial that European countries had enough food.

“Many seasonal workers did not come because of coronavirus and travel restrictions. We suspect that this fear will still be there in 2021,” says Willem Hendrickx from the Flemish company Healthy Fruit bv.

In the end, Belgium’s apples and pears were harvested on time. This is because, due to the temporary closure of other industries, more Belgians were available to work as fruit pickers and jobs were offered to asylum seekers.

The automated workforce

The difficulties experienced by Belgian farmers during the coronavirus crisis have reinforced the need for an additional type of workforce: an automated one. Experts from the fruit industry have teamed up with scientists to form the Autofruit project. With EU support, they are working on a new unmanned tractor, which is almost ready for deployment.

The machine may look like an ordinary tractor, but instead of humans operating it, a high-tech GPS system does the steering. One version of the machine will do the mowing and weed spraying, while another will manage crop inspections and weed control. All while collecting valuable data for the farmer.

Most importantly, it’s likely that future machines will also be able to assist with picking the harvest, saving the staff lots of backbreaking work.

“With the support of the EU, we looked for innovative ways to compensate for the shortage of personnel. Now more than ever, automation can offer a solution,” says Jan Anthonis, chief technological officer of Octinion, one of the project partners.

Autofruit unmanned tractor © NVBAB bamps, 2020

Autofruit unmanned tractor © NVBAB bamps, 2020

The future of European fruit

The development of unmanned tractors will be important not just in times of crisis, but in general for the future of European fruit growing. In the coming years, it’s likely that the industry will see a slowdown in the arrival of seasonal workers from Central and Eastern Europe.

“We are seeing fewer and fewer Polish seasonal workers, given the country’s economic prosperity and higher wages. We see increasing dependency on Romania, but once the economy is revived there, we will see less of it,” says Wilfried Jeurissen, Director of the Limburg Horticultural Auction.

For many in the industry, automation is the only way forward.

“I have been calling for automation for some years now. Our sector still has a huge amount of catching up to do here, however I see wonderful opportunities with robots for pruning and picking as well as for packaging,” says Wilfried Jeurissen.

Apple farm © European Union, 2020

Apple farm © European Union, 2020

Support for farmers across the Union

EU funding for new technologies has given Belgian farmers hope for the industry’s future. However, other EU measures have been instrumental in supporting the agri-food sector, too.

The EU’s designation of seasonal workers as critical workers and the opening of ‘green lanes,’ which kept freight moving, meant all European countries had sufficient food supplies during the crisis. Farmers across Europe also benefited from low-interest rate loans to help cover operational costs and to stay afloat during these difficult times.

The combination of short-term support with investment in research and development in the agri-food sector will help farmers across the Union to recover and thrive in a greener and more digital Europe of tomorrow.