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Grim outlook as Canada is short at least 3,800 seasonal farm workers

The numbers are in for Canada’s shortfall in international seasonal farm workers, and they’re not good.

In total, compared to 2019 we’ve experienced a 14 per cent drop in workers who’ve arrived here.

As a percentage, that figure doesn’t seem outrageous.

But in sheer numbers, it’s 3,800 fewer workers than last year.

And it’s not like they’ve been replaced by anyone else, such as Canadians. The jobs that would normally be done by absent international seasonal farm workers will go unfilled. It’s work that won’t get done, and it’s food that won’t be tended to as it grows or gets harvested.

That should be a yellow flag for consumers, particularly with food security having become a question mark during the early stages of the pandemic. Grocery stores have caught up with the demand for essentials, lulling us into a false sense of assurance. As a result, we haven’t grasped the seriousness of the worker shortage yet.

Consider the statistics alone. Canada brought in a record number of workers last year – 64,000 – to help on farms and, increasingly, in food processing factories.

In truth, it’s a small miracle that we could even come close to that number in 2020, given how the pandemic wreaked havoc on travel, including arrivals from Mexico where we get 52 per cent of our workers.

Worse, look at what happened once they got here this year. The COVID-19 virus spread quickly in some bubbles where they lived and worked, from farms to processing plants, with fatal results in some cases.

Could this situation turn off seasonal workers from returning next year, or at all? Farmers are trying hard to create safe conditions, for them, and hopefully that message will return with them when they go home to Mexico, the Caribbean and elsewhere, and they can feel confident about returning to an improved system next year.

The situation is getting wide attention. For example, Robert Falconer, a researcher at the University of Calgary, says we’d better treat this shortfall with the gravity it deserves.

Tuesday, a paper he wrote called “Grown locally, harvested globally: The role of temporary foreign workers in Canadians agriculture” was released, in which he calls on policy makers to consider ways these workers can come to Canada safely and work in safe environments.

“Federal and provincial governments may wish to consider steps to secure the safety of [temporary foreign workers] as one way to address concerns regarding our food supply chain,” he says.

Falconer highlights the trend in the secondary agricultural sector, such as meat-processing facilities, using more and more international workers. This sector had been experiencing the fastest growth in the use of foreign workers,until now.

So, besides having seasonal fewer workers on farms themselves, we also have fewer in farm-related jobs.

Other experts, including researchers at the University of Guelph, have likewise identified how the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the risk to the labour supply of Canada’s agricultural sector. Falconer echoes their concerns that policymakers must understand the role of international labour to reduce the short- and long-term risks to Canadian agricultural production.

That, he says, is key to ensuring that harvests go on being planted, picked and processed, that grocery stores remain stocked and that Canadians enjoy reasonable prices for what they eat.

He also the decline in available workers is likely to make the 2020 agricultural season “a more difficult one for producers.”

That’s an understatement. Some crops didn’t even get planted. Others are rotting in the field. And we’re still weeks away from peak fruit harvest.

For many producers who employ seasonal international workers, this year is a disaster.

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