British Columbia

Fruit growers worried about lack of camp space as harvest season begins

Fruit growers in B.C.’s Okanagan region are worried they won’t have enough space for workers this summer, as rules and regulations around COVID-19 have changed the way camps work.

COVID-19 safety precautions prohibitive for some producers

Fruit is already being harvested in B.C.'s Okanagan, but new COVID-19 regulations are creating challenges for producers to set up safe camps for workers. (Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press)

Fruit growers in B.C.'s Okanagan region are worried they won't have enough space for workers this summer, as rules and regulations around COVID-19 have changed the way camps work.

Like many industries, fruit growers are required to provide living and working quarters with shower facilities, handwashing stations, PPE and daily health checks for their temporary workers. 

Adrian Arts, an apple and cherry grower in Summerland, said those additional precautions are important, but they come at a cost. When he's already lost crops to frost and hailstorms, that additional cost is prohibitive. 

He said the requirements around sanitation and physical distancing mean he's able to house about 50 per cent of the workers he would normally be able to. If he wants to make it through the apple and cherry harvest, he'll need to find space for seven more workers. 

"We need help this year and as producers, we're asking for help," he told Daybreak South host Chris Walker.

"We don't know where it's going to come from, but hopefully someone's listening."

Local government stepping in

The District of Summerland's chief administrative officer, Anthony Haddad, says he is listening and working quickly to try to help local fruit growers. 

He said the district has looked at different locations within the community that would work as camps, including district-owned land, private property and a local campground. 

"Over the next couple of days we'll be working as hard as we can to try and deal with this problem for what is a key part of our local economy, our agricultural industry and the workers that come," Haddad said. 

Haddad said the district received $70,000 from the provincial government to help work through the issue, and on Monday, the Ministry of Agriculture made a presentation to the district about possible accommodation options.

The Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen has also been given $60,000 and the Creston Valley-Kootenay Lake Economic Action Partnership $112,000 to ensure camps meet health and safety requirements. 

Campsite accommodations are also currently being explored in Summerland, Osoyoos, Naramata and the Similkameen.

Additionally, the B.C. government has created a mandatory online course in agriculture safety, as it relates to COVID-19, for workers and producers.

"Seasonal fruit pickers are a crucial part of our food supply system, helping to get delicious, B.C.-grown fruit, such as cherries, apples, grapes and berries, onto our plates," Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said in a news release.

"Our government is protecting these workers and local residents by making sure workers have a safe place to camp and are educated on the rules and guidelines Dr. Bonnie Henry has put in place here in British Columbia. The goal is to ensure community safety and this is an important step towards that."

Haddad said the money his district received will be used in a variety of ways, such as possibly helping with PPE and sanitation costs and may go towards helping source locations for camps.

But that help can't come soon enough; Arts needs to start harvesting in early July.

"In the South Okanagan, Osooyos and Oliver, they've started their harvest," he said.  

"This is a very unique circumstance. Normally we're very much equipped to deal with the housing situation for our workers. We as producers need some help in an unusual year to make sure that our workers and our communities that we work in stay safe."

With files from Daybreak South and Christine Coulter