Why it’s Sweden’s best year for bilberries in decades – but no one’s around to pick them

Walk through any given pine forest in Sweden these days and you'll stumble across an endless expense of bilberry shrubs.

Why it's Sweden's best year for bilberries in decades – but no one's around to pick them
Photo: Gorm Kallestad/NTB scanpix/TT

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.

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. 

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Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

A reader got in touch to ask how long he had to work in Sweden before he was eligible for a pension. Here are Sweden's pension rules, and how you can get your pension when the time comes.

Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

The Swedish pension is part of the country’s social insurance system, and it can seem like a confusing beast at times. The good news is that if you’re living and working here, you’ll almost certainly be earning towards a pension, and you’ll be able to get that money even if you move elsewhere before retirement.

You will start earning your Swedish general pension, or allmän pension, once you’ve earned over 20,431 kronor in a single year, and – for almost all kinds of pension in Sweden – there is no time limit on how long you must have lived in Sweden before you are eligible.

The exception is the minimum guarantee pension, or garantipension, which you can receive whether you’ve worked or not. To be eligible at all for this, you need to have lived in Sweden for a period of at least three years before you are 65 years old. 

“There’s a limit, but it’s a money limit,” Johan Andersson, press secretary at the Swedish Pension Agency told The Local about the general pension. “When you reach the point that you start paying tax, you start paying into your pension.”

“But you have to apply for your pension, make sure you get in touch with us when you want to start receiving it,” he said.

Here’s our in-depth guide on how you can maximise your Swedish pension, even if you’re only planning on staying in Sweden short-term.

Those who spend only a few years working in Sweden will earn a much smaller pension than people who work here for their whole lives, but they are still entitled to something – people who have worked in Sweden will keep their income pension, premium pension, supplementary pension and occupational pension that they have earned in Sweden, even if they move to another country. The pension is paid no matter where in the world you live, but must be applied for – it is not automatically paid out at retirement age.

If you retire in the EU/EEA, or another country with which Sweden has a pension agreement, you just need to apply to the pension authority in your country of residence in order to start drawing your Swedish pension. If you live in a different country, you should contact the Swedish Pensions Agency for advice on accessing your pension, which is done by filling out a form (look for the form called Ansök om allmän pension – om du är bosatt utanför Sverige).

The agency recommends beginning the application process at least three months before you plan to take the pension, and ideally six months beforehand if you live abroad. It’s possible to have the pension paid into either a Swedish bank account or an account outside Sweden.

A guarantee pension – for those who live on a low income or no income while in Sweden – can be paid to those living in Sweden, an EU/EEA country, Switzerland or, in some cases, Canada. This is the only Swedish pension which is affected by how long you’ve lived in Sweden – you can only receive it if you’ve lived in the country for at least three years before the age of 65.

“The guarantee pension is residence based,” Andersson said. “But it’s lower if you haven’t lived in Sweden for at least 40 years. You are eligible for it after living in Sweden for only three years, but it won’t be that much.”