Most often associated with harvest time – and out in larger numbers then – seasonal workers can already be found on farms throughout Ontario.

That’s certainly the case with St. Jacobs-based Martin’s Family Fruit Farm, for instance, where some 40 seasonal workers have been busy tending to the apple trees, with plenty of pruning and planting to be done ahead of the busy harvest time that ramps up at the end of August. At that point, their ranks swell to about a hundred.

Across the province, some 2,500 workers are already at work on fruit and vegetable farms under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). By the height of the growing season, more than 17,000 workers are expected to be placed at more than 1,450 agricultural operations.

Most migrant workers come from Mexico and Jamaica, but also from some smaller Caribbean countries such as St. Lucia and the Bahamas.

Each country participating in SAWP maintains a liaison service or consular office in Ontario to help look after the general welfare of agricultural workers and help them navigate any issues or complications they may face while working here.

“Of the many different temporary worker programs in Canada, ours is the only one that offers 24-hour a day assistance to our workers directly with people from their home country through a liaison service. That is part of what make SAWP unique, and also plays a significant role in why it’s so successful,” said Ken Forth, president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (F.A.R.M.S.), which administers the program.

Liaison services from each participating country are open year round – their role contributes to a repeat of 80 per cent of the seasonal agricultural workers each year. The liaison service is instrumental in recruiting and selecting the best candidates for placement of successful applicants on Ontario farms, providing workers support on a wide range of issues during their term of employment, the organization reports.

“Essentially the liaison staff act as advocates for the workers and help them with anything they need 24 hours a day – whether that’s a medical emergency, help with paperwork or help with issues they may be having at home,” Forth said.

Established in 1966 in response to a critical shortage of available domestic agricultural workers, SAWP continues to serve the same role 51 years later, connecting Ontario farmers with a reliable source of supplementary seasonal labour. Because SAWP is a “Canadians first” program, supplementary seasonal workers are hired from participating countries only if agricultural operators cannot find domestic workers to fill vacancies.

It’s estimated that two jobs for Canadians are created in the agri-food industry for every seasonal agricultural worker employed through SAWP at Ontario farms.

The seasonal workers play a critical role in Ontario agriculture, says Kevin Martin, president of Martin’s Family Fruit Farm.

“It’s key for all horticulture. That’s not just an Ontario deal, but everywhere. In the U.S., they didn’t have a program like this (SAWP), so they had problems,” he said, noting the industry couldn’t operate without migrant workers.

“You’re not going to make an investment in horticulture, an orchard for instance, without this program.”

It’s not about cutting costs, he adds. In fact, labour costs increase due to the need to pay for housing and transportation on top of the wages, but farm operations simply can’t find local people to do the work.

“It’s not to save money. It’s a greater cost,” Martin said, noting seasonal workers are the only option. “There isn’t actually an alternative.”

A study released last summer by Guelph-based Agri-food Economic Systems identified SAWP as a key reason Ontario’s horticulture industry is able to generate $5.4 billion in economic activity and approximately 34,280 jobs.

The report found that chronic labour shortages continue to challenge the agricultural sector due to aging demographics, competition with other sectors and fewer numbers of young people pursuing careers in farming. As a result, demand for workers under SAWP is projected to remain steady.