Alberta farms feel the pinch of seasonal worker delays

It’s a busy time of year at Riverbend Gardens and the vegetable farm in northeast Edmonton is facing an extra challenge this summer: four of its seasonal workers are stuck in Mexico.

Foreign worker visas slow to arrive due to COVID-19 pandemic

A Mexican worker harvests crops at Riverbend Gardens in northeast Edmonton. Foreign workers the farm relies on have been delayed at the Mexican border this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Detour Photography)

It's a busy time of year at Riverbend Gardens and the vegetable farm in northeast Edmonton is facing an extra challenge this summer: four of its seasonal workers are stuck in Mexico.

"They weren't able to process their visas and all of that process has just slowed right down," Janelle Herbert, owner of Riverbend Gardens, told CBC's Radio Active.

The Herberts have hired temporary workers from Mexico through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program since 2006, with many of the same workers returning year after year.

Many Alberta farmers rely on the program, said Willard de Wilde, president of Alberta Farm Fresh Producers Association.

Even though the federal government did allow air travel ban exemptions for temporary foreign workers in agriculture after March 18, some of the producers who use the program report slow processing, or visas not arriving at all, according to de Wilde. When workers do arrive, they have to isolate for 14 days before they can work. In all, it's left producers scrambling and, in some cases, losing out on expected revenue this year.

"We're in a timely industry, so if our workers are two weeks late, suddenly, you're two weeks behind in production and you're missing your market," de Wilde said.

The program allows foreign workers from Mexico and other partner countries in the Caribbean to work in Canada on temporary visas, for a maximum of eight months.

De Wilde, who owns a berry farm north of Lethbridge, said some Alberta farmers who use temporary workers had to plant less than usual this year. Others could have trouble with harvest time.

Work is physically demanding

Riverbend hired additional high school and university students this year to fill in the gaps. But finding local workers willing to do the hard work of picking weeds and hand-harvesting delicate vegetables isn't easy.

They've seen students walk off the job after a few days, because the work is too physically demanding.

Herbert says the farm is also missing the expertise of the Mexican workers, some of whom have been with Riverbend for 10 years. Now there are simply fewer hands to call on when things go wrong.

"Last night, the river was rising because we had so much rain, and it was me and [my husband] Aaron out there, trying to pull the pump up so it doesn't drown," Herbert said. "So when we have those seasonal agricultural workers, they are here for those emergency situations."

In a statement sent to CBC News, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said the department "is prioritizing applications from workers in essential occupations, where labour is most needed to ensure a sufficient food supply and to protect the health of Canadians."

As of June 14, nearly 32,000 seasonal agricultural workers had arrived in Canada for the 2020 season, according to the spokesperson. This included about 18,000 from Mexico, 7,000 from Guatemala and 6,000 from Jamaica, with an additional 7,000 approved, who hadn't travelled to Canada yet. There were approximately 1,600 applications received and still being processed as of June 14, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.

Still, it may be too little too late for many Alberta farmers, de Wilde said. 

"Salvaging what's left is not even an option," he said. "To speed it along, I think we are just about too late in the game. I think the government has not responded to our concerns in a timely fashion.

"We got quite a bit of run around, with the government saying, 'We're looking into this.' That turns into months and months of looking into this with no results."

For Herbert, however, it might not be too late. Three of the four workers they usually bring to the farm now have their visas. She hopes all four men will be able to join the Riverbend team in the coming weeks, so they are able to isolate together for the required two weeks, before getting to work on the farm.

"Even if they come for August, September, October, that would be especially beneficial for us to have them once all our university and high school employees go back to school."


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