Bilberries, also called European wild blueberries (or blåbär in Swedish), are the somewhat smaller cousin of blueberries that you'll find in the Nordic wilderness. As much as 17 percent of Sweden's land area is covered in bilberry bushes, producing about 600,000 tonnes of fruit, according to an investigative article in Dagens Nyheter.
Late summer is the peak of the Swedish berry season, and 2020 has turned out to be the best berry year in decades. The past months have seen the right proportions of warmth and rain for an exceptionally abundant yield. Last year proved problematic for the berry; the incessant heat resulted in many plants losing their fruit, and, consequently, a meagre harvest for the handful of Swedish companies that trade in wild berries.
But several weeks into the picking season and most of the bilberries are left on their branches, where they will soon start rotting, that is, if they won't be eaten by the birds first.
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This year around, the problem isn't a shortage of berries, but a shortage of people to pick them.
Until the late 1980s it was part of Swedish culture: many families, both the young and old, would spend one or several weeks a year in the forest picking wild berries, which they in turn would sell to a middleman who would redistribute the fruit.
Photo: Vidar Ruud/NTB scanpix/TT
But nowadays very few people in Sweden are willing to make the effort for the compensation that the bilberry traders offer. So, as often happens with unskilled labour today, much of the workforce comes from abroad to do the job.
Of course: you're not a true Swede if you don't do some hobby-picking over the weekend, some time in August or September. A chanterelle here, a lingon berry there. But only for personal use. Blåbärspaj, blåbärssoppa and blåbärssylt fill the average Swedish fridge during these late summer months. But the bilberry companies' freezers remain virtually empty.
Somewhat ironically, only months before many Swedes travel to Thailand to vacation on a white beach, in a normal year, several thousand Thai rice farmers fly to Scandinavia to do the intensive work that the northerners no longer want to do themselves. About four out of five berry pickers are Thai, according to Dagens Nyheter. The rest comes primarily from Ukraine and Bulgaria.
Thai berry pickers in Sweden. Photo: Fredrik Karlsson/TT
But during the peak of the coronavirus in Sweden, when the country counted among the world's highest death rates per capita, the Thai ministry of labour decided to ban seasonal work in the Nordic country. Ukraine had already closed its borders with the EU in March as a precaution to halt the spread of Covid-19.
And the Swedish tax authority's appeal to the Swedish people to resume the tradition of commercial berry picking – with the prospect of up to 12,500 kronor of tax-exempted fruit – barely seems to be paying off.
After tough negotiations, the Thai government eventually allowed a group of berry pickers to make the trip to Sweden. Thailand has demanded a two-week period of paid quarantine for the workers upon return, as well as a slew of corona safety measures on location in Sweden. The unusual requirements proved to be such a large expense for the berry entrepreneurs that many of them declined. Fewer than 3,000 seasonal workers have been requested to travel to Sweden – less than half of what would be needed to refill the bilberry traders' stocks.
Yet consumers in Sweden might not even notice the shortage; around 80 percent of the wild bilberry harvest is usually exported, predominantly to Asia. Swedish supermarkets, meanwhile, prefer farmed blueberries – bigger and sweeter – from Chile, Portugal or Poland.