British Columbia

B.C. fruit growers worry lack of workers due to COVID-19 will lead to produce shortage

Ottawa has declared temporary foreign farm workers an essential service, but border restrictions and reluctant domestic workers still pose challenges for Okanagan farmers.

4,500 migrant workers are needed every year to work Okanagan fields and orchards

The B.C. Fruit Growers' Association relies on about 4,500 temporary foreign workers to help pick Okanagan produce every year. It does not expect to have enough hands to complete the harvest this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Glen Lucas)

Although the federal government has designated temporary foreign farm workers an essential service and exempted them from COVID-19 border closures, some B.C. farmers are worried there will not be enough hands to help with this year's harvest.

Glen Lucas, general manager of the B.C. Fruit Growers' Association, says about 4,500 migrant workers are needed every year to work Okanagan fields and orchards. Many of those workers come from Mexico and the Caribbean, and while they are permitted to come into Canada during the virus pandemic, Lucas said the logistics of getting them here is a challenge.

Lucas said those workers will have to be flown by charter plane because of border closures and reduced airline service, and he worries that could mean reduced numbers or delayed arrivals.

"That is something we are working on and it takes time to put in place," Lucas told CBC's Daybreak South host Chris Walker on Wednesday.

Lucas also expects some of those workers will choose to stay home with their families during the coronavirus pandemic. 

"The sense that I have is that we will not have enough," said Lucas.

Domestic help also down

He is also worried that farmers will not be able to rely on the regular influx of backpackers, primarily from Quebec, that flood the region in the summer looking for picking work.

According to Lucas, there are roughly 1,500 Québécois pickers who arrive annually and about 1,500 backpackers who come from elsewhere who will not be able to come to B.C. if they usually do so on a travel visa. 

An association employee has been surveying Québécois pickers to see if they are planning to return this year, and Lucas said it looks like many plan to skip this season, which starts in June with the cherry harvest.

David Geen, who owns a cherry orchard, says he's not in an emergency position yet, but he knows other farmers  — for instance asparagus producers — who are already feeling the pinch.

"The government's really encouraging people to stay home and not come to work, so that does make it difficult in that environment to recruit people,"  Geen said. "If this was happening, you know, in June right ahead of harvest, that would be very, very worrisome." 

Lucas said the worker shortage will undoubtedly impact how much produce makes it to consumers this year.

"If we are short 10 per cent of workers, there will be 10 per cent less harvest," he said.

Lucas said the association is still working with government officials to finalize health protocols for temporary foreign workers who do decide to come to Canada.

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With files from Daybreak South, Tom Popyk