Much of the country has been shut down due to COVID-19, with borders closed and international flights all but nonexistent. That combination is particularly troubling for farmers who are ramping up for the spring planting season.
The agriculture sector is highly dependent on temporary foreign workers (TFWs), who account for 20 per cent of the total employment in the sector. That dependency is more pronounced in the horticulture industry: fruits, vegetables, greenhouse and nursery operations.
Altogether, some 60,000 migrant or seasonal workers assist Canadian farmers, especially at planting and harvesting. Ontario accounts for about a third of TFWs in the sector, according to figures from Statistics Canada.
Right now, farmers are very much concerned about access to TFWs, though the federal government has made provisions to open the borders to such workers, who typically come from some 100 countries around the globe – Statistics Canada numbers show about half come from Mexico, another 20 per cent from Guatemala and 18 per cent from Jamaica, the three largest sources.
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The concerns extend to farmers in this area.
At Pfenning’s Organic Farm in New Hamburg, for instance, Jennifer Pfenning explains the restrictions in place have hurt the company, a local producer of organic vegetables
“Normally, we would have booked the flights and our workers would be arriving next week or so. There are no flights,” she said.
The operation employs a total of 35 migrant workers who act as leads during the season.
“That’s all up in the air right now, a confusing time for local producers that rely on migrant workers,” said Pfenning, pointing to a recent flight carrying migrant workers that landed directly in Halifax instead of stopping in Toronto.
Addressing the issue in a teleconference last week, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland declared temporary foreign workers as essential to food security in the country. Ottawa implemented new rules around the process of bringing in such workers, pledging $50 million to help farmers, fish harvesters, and food production and processing employers.
Part of the updated process includes a mandatory 14-day quarantine to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19, a development with which Martin’s Family Fruit Farm is now well aware.
“We have been able to get some of the workers, and as of today, they’ve been able to start working. They have completed their self-isolation and they are able to start working today,” company president Kevin Martin said Friday.
The St. Jacobs operation was granted just 20 of the 54 workers they normally require each year. The current group of foreign migrant workers are from Jamaica and the second group will be from Trinidad depending on when and if they can bring them in.
Although, it has been a cool spring, the 20 Jamaican workers are currently pruning trees and doing minimal planting in the orchard located near Lake Erie. Having such a long period before trees can produce fruit – approximately three years – is one of the few plus sides to the situation allowing some flexibility in terms of a late arrival of workers or a cooler season, said Martin.
Both Pfenning and Martin note that temporary foreign migrant workers are essential to agriculture, food security and economic development for the country.
“It’s really important for people to understand that hiring people from outside of Canada isn’t something that we have done because we don’t want to hire local people. It’s because we haven’t been able to find … people capable or willing to work on a farm,” said Pfenning.
Both Pfenning’s Organic Farm and Martin’s Family Fruit Farm are willing to hire locally, however seasonal work is considered undesirable, and a lot of the temporary migrant workers act as leads on their farms. “We hire four locals for every Jamaican worker,” said Pfenning, noting the TFWs have developed to the point where they are no longer unskilled labourers but skilled labourers capable of training local workers.
The absence of TFWs will have a negative effect on the upcoming season if the shortage is not addressed soon, both agree.