As spring planting approaches, Quebec farmers face steep costs, long delays in getting foreign workers

Vegetable and fruit growers in Quebec are facing tough decisions, as it gets increasingly complicated and expensive to bring temporary workers from Guatemala and Mexico.

Expect local fruits and vegetables to be pricey this year, as half the needed workers means half the harvest

The Quebec Produce Growers' Association estimates only half the number of temporary foreign workers who normally come to the province in April and May will make it this year. (Julia Page/CBC)

Madeleine Olivier's organic farm in Saint-Bruno-de-Guigues, in Quebec's Témiscamingue region, could never have expanded into what it is today without the help of the two Mexican farmhands her family hires every year.

"We were only able to begin growing the farm and increasing the crops since we employed those two workers," Olivier said, "They changed the farm completely."

But this year, she's not sure they'll make it.

"We don't we don't know what will happen — it's a complicated season," Olivier said.

Her two employees are among 16,000 temporary foreign workers employed by Quebec's farming industry every summer.

The federal government confirmed in March the workers will be allowed into the country despite the COVID-19 travel ban, because they're considered essential workers.

But travel restrictions and government lockdowns in Canada and abroad have delayed the delivery of work visas.

The result is that only half of those who normally arrive in the spring to plant, weed fields and prepare seedlings are expected to make it in by the end of May.

That's forcing vegetable farmers like Olivier to make tough decisions. Even if her workers are able to come, she doesn't know if she can afford them.

"It's going to be really, really expensive this year to employ Mexicans," she said.

Workers will have to be isolated for 14 days when they arrive in Quebec and won't be allowed to work during that period, however, their employers will still be required to pay them.

No aid programs for temporary foreign workers

That two-week salary, multiplied by several workers, isn't something all employers can afford, said Jocelyn St-Denis, the general manager of the Quebec Produce Growers Association (QPGA).

He would like to see the aid programs being offered to other Canadian workers who must self-isolate for 14 days offered to temporary foreign workers, too.

"[The government] wants the workers to be treated like Canadians. So our government should treat them that way, as well."

Without any subsidy, St-Denis said growers have to make up their minds about what to do — and fast.

"Do I delay production? Do I cut production? Do I change my production plan? Do I really go into business this year or take a year off, because of all the risks that are involved?"

Those are just some of the questions fruit and vegetable growers across Quebec are dealing with, St-Denis said.

Madeleine Olivier's Nordvie farm in Témiscamingue, in northwestern Quebec, depends heavily on farmhands from Mexico to harvest the crops at the end of the summer, when finding local workers is difficult. (Submitted by Marc-André Martin)

"Right now they aren't sleeping well," said St-Denis.

Some 1,400 producers rely on foreign workers, mostly for high-maintenance produce such as lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, strawberries and raspberries — fruits and vegetables that will likely be less available and more expensive this year, as a result.

If there are only half as many workers who can transplant production into the field in April, that will mean only half the harvest at the end of the year, St-Denis said.

With all those questions to answer, Olivier said she isn't sure it's worth the headache, despite the impact not hiring her workers will have on her season.

"We have to think about it, and we have to think about it really, really fast."

With more COVID-19 cases here, will workers still want to come?

The delays this year aren't only attributable to the COVID-19 crisis.

Fernando Borja, the director of FERME, the organization that manages the recruitment of foreign agricultural workers in the province, said there was already a backlog in the delivery of visas in Mexico prior to the crisis.

Nonetheless, around 1,500 workers in Mexico have their work permits, he said, and are waiting for the Mexican government to approve the protocol the Canadian government has put in place.

Guatemala, has grounded all air and ground transportation and is not processing visas that need to be approved before workers can make it on the government list to come to Quebec.

Borja is confident, however, that chartered planes carrying workers will start arriving at Montreal's Pierre-Elliot Trudeau "as soon as next week."

Michel Deschênes of the Ferme Des Ormes in Plessisville, Que., said it's too late for growers to cut back on their strawberry production because the plants are put into the ground in the fall. (Julia Page/CBC)

Farmer Michel Deschênes hopes that is the case.

But he said it's also up to the workers to decide if they want to leave their families during a pandemic and travel to a country that has more significantly more cases than their own.

Deschênes got a text message from one of his Mexican workers, saying he would not be returning this year to Deschênes's farm in Pierreville, in central Quebec.

"It's going to be hard to get replacements," said the co-owner of the Ferme des Ormes, which produces vegetables and berries.

While he is optimistic the majority of his 20 workers will come, he's not expecting a normal year.

Lodging them will also be more complicated. According to the federal protocol, beds will have to be two metres apart, and the houses and dorms will have to be disinfected regularly.

And every time new workers arrive, that 14-day clock will have to be wound back to day one for everyone living under the same roof.

Farmers can't rely on local hires

Premier François Legault has urged Quebecers who have lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 crisis to look for employment on farms.

On Monday, Legault said the government is working on measures to give bonuses to Quebecers "who are willing to work in the fields and promote local products."

"There is a challenge with foreign workers," acknowledged Legault. " The workforce will be available — now we need incentives."

But that solution isn't one that neither Deschênes nor Olivier see as feasible.

"If I hire Quebec workers, and they are called back to work on their regular jobs in July," said Deschênes, "I'm in deep trouble."

"What will we do if we do not have enough employees in September?" Olivier asks. "We might lose food in the field because we're not able to pick in time."

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