Romanian pickers arrive in private jet to save Italy vineyard

Termeno (Italy) (AFP) –


Italy's vines have not stopped growing during the country's long coronavirus lockdown, but without their usual foreign grape-pickers, winemakers are now fearing for their harvests.

But one South Tyrolean vintner in the northern province of Bolzano took matters into his own hands, renting a plane to fly in his team of long-time workers from Romania.

Every summer, tens of thousands of farm workers from Africa and Eastern Europe come to Italy to harvest fruit and vegetables.

The outbreak of coronavirus, which locked down Italy in early March, made it almost impossible for these vital foreign workers to come.

Martin Hofstaetter, whose vines are located around the picturesque town of Termeno, has relied for more than ten years on a team of female Romanian pickers.

Usually, they arrive in a small bus and stay for a few months. But this year, despite having the right to work in Italy, they were turned away at the Hungarian border.

Hofstaetter was quick to act, hiring a small plane to transport the women directly from Romania to Termeno at his own expense.

"We had never been on a plane before. It was a great experience for us," Maria Codrea, from Calinesti in Romania, told AFPTV.

Codrea, 39, said she depended on the annual work in Italy.

Staying back in Romania "would have been hard," she said.

"Even where we are, everything is closed, factories and everything."

- Italians hard to find -

Codrea will stay until mid-July in Termeno with her team of seven other Romanian women before returning home. A second team of about 20 workers from Romania will arrive in Termeno at the end of August for the harvest.

Hofstaetter, whose wines include the famous white varieties of Italy's northeast, said he might have been able to find Italian workers, "but now the Italians no longer want to work in the fields or vineyards."

"The Italians disappear after a few days" of the back-breaking work, he added.

It was a shame that work in agriculture was not "more highly valued", he said, but he was very happy with the skills and dedication of the Romanians, who had been picking for him for over 10 years.

Last week, the first group of about 100 foreign farm workers arrived in Italy from Morocco, their transport paid for by a farmers' association in the eastern region of Abruzzo.

For Codrea, it is not difficult work among Hofstaetter's family vines in the Adige Valley, with the sound of the birds, and views of the mountains and a nearby church steeple.

"We're used to the work. I like the work, I work with pleasure," she said.