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Need to promote, educate and automate to address worker gap

Monday’s announcement that Mexico is going to stop sending temporary workers to Canadian farms that have registered a COVID-19 outbreak is totally understandable, although very difficult for producers here scoping out summer and fall work.

And it underlines how Canada really needs to get serious about promoting agriculture as a career and try to get some of the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who are unemployed here interested in farm work.

Mexico said it is not completely suspending the temporary worker program, which has seen almost 11,000 Mexicans arrive since the pandemic began.

But after a coronavirus outbreak in Ontario hit nearly 20 farms and is blamed for killing two workers, what else was the country it supposed to do? As far as anyone knows, the workers arrived in Canada disease-free, then contracted the virus while here.

Going forward, farms interested in Mexican workers will need to prove that they are offering those prospective employees adequate protection against infection. The Canadian government’s blanket assurance that precautions are in place will no longer do.

Earlier this month, Ontario said it was expanding its Agri-Food Workplace Protection Plan Program and committing up to $15 million to enhance health and safety measures on farms and in food processing facilities.

But the harm has been done. The Mexican workers deaths have been held out by workers’ rights groups as evidence that tight quarters on farms for the international workers are hazardous.

This tragic situation is a huge mess for agriculture. Farmers are desperate to employ these workers, who fill a huge gap by doing hard work that Canadians won’t do. Efforts to encourage more domestic involvement have been unsuccessful.

So what’s the answer?

I talked to a cattle and grain farmer this week with two Canadians on his payroll. He says the key is to make their jobs compelling – just like off-farm positions.

“People like diversity, so we try to give our workers a variety of things to do to keep them interested, hoping they won’t get bored,” he said.

He added that finding reliable labour has always been a struggle. But lately, more people than ever are calling the farm for work, job seekers who became unemployed because of the pandemic.

I talked to another farmer, a fruit and vegetable producer, who wondered if the domestic worker drive would succeed. She estimates she’s had 150 phone calls from job seekers this spring, but none have panned out.

“Seasonal international workers carry out skilled labour,” she says. “People responding to the (domestic) program want to be paid as skilled labourers, they want to earn $19 an hour, but they don’t have the skills. We’re highly frustrated by the response.”

Recently, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) received nearly $400,000 funding for a program called Enhancing Agri-Food Workforce Readiness Along the Value Chain. It’s designed to develop a comprehensive support system for agriculture and food employers and job seekers, and will include virtual job fairs, specialized trainingand a “concierge” function to match workers and employers.

Agriculture needs more programs like this, along with a much broader campaign to interest young people in agriculture. The classroom is a great place to start, through the efforts of groups like AgScape in Ontario and others across Canada.

Labour shortages point to why farmers need to automate as much as possible. Consumers yearn for idyllic visions of farmers doing everything by hand. But as a recentfront-page headline in The Grower newspaper for fruit and vegetable producers proclaimed in response to international worker shortage, “Fewer hands, less food.”

Less food is not an option. Automation is.

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