Why Ontario asparagus is at risk if minimum wage goes up

Ontario asparagus farmers may stop growing the green crop if the province increases minimum wages.

Ontario farmers may have to cut jobs and hike prices if provincial minimum wage increases

Barry Harrison, co-owner of Mazak Farms, says farmers may stop growing the green crop if the province increases minimum wages. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Some Ontario asparagus farmers may stop growing the crop if the province increases minimum wages.

"To walk away from it is devastating," said Sarah Harrison, co-owner of Mazak Farms, where asparagus is the main source of income for the four decades old farm just south of London. "We will find a way to survive but as produce farmers – I'm not sure if that's going to be it."

Harrison said she was devastated after the Ontario government announced in May a plan to increase the provincial minimum wage from $11.40 to $15 an hour by January 2019.

Every spear at three hectare farm is handpicked during the asparagus season that runs from May till June.   

Harrison said the small scale business employs about six people - apart from family members - during the harvest season, and will have to cut jobs, increase prices, and take on double the work in order to survive.

Mike Colle, the parliamentary assistant to the Minister of Labour, said the government is looking at ways to mitigate the impact on employers, however, minimum wage workers are the priority.

"How can you defend the status quo that leaves to many people that are generally women, new comers who can't speak English, and in racialized communities below low poverty situations," he said. "How much longer?"

Sarah and Barry Harrison of Mazak Farms, say they may have to cut jobs and hike prices if the province increases minimum wages. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Impact across Ontario

Ontario's proposed legislation on labour reforms includes projected equal pay for part-time workers, increased vacation entitlements and expanded personal emergency leave.  

Plamen Petkov, the vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, said the Ontario government may end up hurting the people it's trying to help.

"This happened out of the blue," he said. "It was announced without any previous consultation or any economic analysis to determine impact on provincial economy and especially unemployment."

There are more than 80 asparagus farms spanning a collective of 3500 acres in Ontario.

Bernie Solymar, the executive producer of Asparagus Farmers of Ontario, said almost all of the association's members use off-shore labour – which may no longer be an option if Ontario moves ahead with minimum wage increases.  

"A farmer can't control the market – the market controls the farmer," he said.

The federal Labour Market Impact Assessment program connects foreign workers to local farms to be employed for a minimum wage job.

Sarah and Barry Harrison of Mazak Farms, say they may have to cut jobs and hike prices if the province increases minimum wages. (Hala Ghonaim/CBC)

Liberal officials are holding consultations across the province to hear from Ontarians regarding the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act.

Farmers have suggested phasing in the changes over a longer period of time would help.

Others have also suggested a potential exemption.

"This is heartbreaking because this isn't just our business, this is our life," said Harrison. "It's really, really hard to be a farmer in Ontario right now."