British Columbia

B.C. fruit growers appeal to local residents to help with harvest as COVID-19 keeps foreign workers away

Fruit growers are appealing to British Columbians in need of work to help with the remaining harvest this year.

'If the fruit doesn't come off the tree, it's not income'

It's hard, physical work, but picking fruit is fulfilling, according to the B.C. Fruit Growers' Association. (Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press)

As B.C. fruit growers round out cherry season and head into apple season, the B.C. Fruit Growers' Association is appealing to locals for help picking crops as the COVID-19 pandemic has kept many out-of-province workers off B.C. farms. 

In an average year, association general manager Glen Lucas said there are about 8,000 fruit pickers in B.C., many of whom travel from places like Quebec, Mexico, the Caribbean and Australia to spend the summer in the sunshine, tending to and harvesting crops. 

This year, he said, there are only about 5,000. 

"If the fruit doesn't come off the tree, it's not income," Lucas told Daybreak South host Chris Walker. 

By the time picking season comes around, farmers have often poured other resources into those crops, like pruning, thinning, fertilizers, irrigation and more. Without someone to pick the fruit, all those upfront costs are lost, nevermind the loss of income from the sale of the fruit.

Cherries haven't been particularly successful this year, which has been helpful for farmers who don't have enough staff to pick the fruit. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Lucas said local residents often work on fruit farms, but they're typically in supervisory roles. Right now, they're needed for general labour. 

Although the work is fulfilling, Lucas said the retention rate for local workers is very low. To combat that, they're doing what they can to make it clear that picking fruit is hard physical work. 

"Our trees are smaller but we still go up and use ladders and also those picking bags can weigh 30 pounds, so it is heavy work but it's very rewarding," Lucas said. 

"I know that everyone that completes the season just has a real sense of accomplishment."

They've also hired extra staff to help with orientation and training, because Lucas said people are more likely to stick around if they've had expectations laid out and tips on how to make the job sustainable. 

While they don't need to fill all 3,000 picking positions, because the cherry crop wasn't particularly successful this year, they still need people to help out. 

"It's maybe a blessing in disguise, because we just wouldn't have had enough workers to harvest the cherry crop," Lucas said. 

"The apple crop is not as intensive, so we're hoping that we'll get more people staying around for that. But we're still short and there's still crop being abandoned."

With files from Daybreak South

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