U-pick farms in Quebec allowed to open, but other farm activities remain off limits

Berry farms across Quebec are getting ready to welcome customers in their fields, but strawberry lovers who want to pick their own will have to comply with the new public health rules.

Growers hiring extra workers to adapt to COVID-19 measures

Jean-François Dion, co-owner of Aux Fruits de la Colline, a berry farm in Sainte-Marie, Que., sells more than 60 per cent of his strawberries to U-pickers. (Julia Page/CBC)

Berry farmer Jean-François Dion knows people who stop to pick berries every summer at his business in Sainte-Marie, in Quebec's Beauce region, aren't only stocking up on strawberries for their jam preserves — they're also looking for a fun, inexpensive outing for the whole family.

But the investments he's made to attract those customers and stand out from the competition — a petting zoo, inflatable games and a playground — will be off limits this summer. Quebec public health has authorized farms to sell produce and welcome U-pickers, but it hasn't given the green light to those other activities.

"When you're a grower and sell your products at the farm, you have to have that little extra something to attract people," said Dion, who hopes the quality of his strawberries, raspberries and pumpkins will be enough to draw customers to Aux Fruits de la Colline in the coming weeks.

The farm produces 25,000 kilograms of strawberries each year, 60 per cent of which are picked in the fields by customers themselves.

With picking season about to get underway, around June 24 in the Beauce, Dion is getting his fields ready for all that foot traffic.

To respect the government's pandemic-related hygiene rules, that means installing wash stations so people can clean their hands before they start picking. ​

The equipment​, like buckets and knee pads,​ ​will also have to be disinfected between customers. And pickers will have to stick to their assigned rows and avoid crossing paths​ with other people​.

Enforcing all these rules will require three or four extra employees. Dion said thankfully, he's received more than the usual number of job applications from locals, especially teenagers looking for a summer job.

Aux Fruits de la Colline's petting zoo, home to Willy the pig, will have be off limits this summer because public health hasn't authorized the reopening of private playgrounds. (Julia Page/CBC)

"It's going to be a challenge, especially in the first weeks when we'll have to get used to these new norms," he said.

"But that's what being a farmer is all about — adapting."

More farm workers on hand

Premier François Legault announced in March the government would offer a $100 weekly bonus to field workers, based on a 25-hour work week — an incentive to try to get more Quebecers applying for agricultural jobs, to make up for the shortage of temporary foreign workers.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAPAQ) said as of June 1, 11,880 people had applied for a job at their local agricultural employment centre.

The operators of Vallée des Grands Potagers, a fruit and vegetable farm in Compton in the Eastern Townships, said they've witnessed an increase in the number of people applying to work on their farm.

With three-quarters of their strawberry production dedicated to U-pick customers, owners Julie Drouin and Simon Grenier were counting on those extra hands if U-Pick hadn't been permitted in 2020.

But even with more staff, they weren't certain they'd find a market to sell all the strawberries that customers usually take home themselves.

Simon Grenier and Julie Drouin, centre, who co-own Vallée des Grands Potagers in Compton, Que., say they have had more people than usual applying this year, in addition to their regular crew, which includes Chloe Choquette, right. (Spencer Van Dyk/CBC)

"We would have tried to offer fruit baskets," said Drouin, "but the market is already saturated," especially in the Eastern Townships.

Drouin had also been worried about what hygienic rules might be imposed, if and when U-pick operations were authorized. 

"In the end, it's pretty simple," she said. "All we have to do is wash our hands and keep our distances."

More workers showing up

​Frost hit the Eastern Townships and the Beauce regions a few nights in late May, and as a result, Bleutière Marland, a berry farm in Ste-Marie, lost a quarter of its strawberry plants.

Co-owner Annie Marcoux ​said like Dion, they started offering customers more than berries over the past few years, and that's paid off. They aren't as dependent on their crops.

Seeing that more and more of their customers were young families looking for an outing, they opened an ice-cream counter and ​installed a wood-fired oven for homemade pizzas which they serve on a giant patio, overlooking the fields.

​"It's more stable for the business, and customers are looking for places to go, like here, to enjoy nature," she said. 

Annie Marcoux, co-owner of Bleutière Marland, said her biggest concern in reorganizing customer service at her family's blueberry farm has been keeping her clients and staff safe. (Julia Page/CBC)

But that expanded business comes with its own logistical issues, as the government dictates the ever-changing rules around best practices to avoid COVID-19.

"Back in April, I never thought I'd be able to open the restaurant," said Marcoux. Now that more and more services are reopening, Marcoux is grateful  — but she is also left her scratching her head.

"With every new announcement, it's always more than what we expected," she said. "But still it's stressful, and it always [demands] a lot of time and thinking, to readjust our work of working."

​Under the rules laid out by the Ministry of Agriculture, employees who handle cash can't handle the food. And those wiping down the tables can't bring out the pizzas.

​All those extra steps means Marcoux is also hiring more employees this summer. Thankfully, she said, she's also received calls from students looking for a summer job.

With festivals and many activities closed for the summer, even her regular staff are more available than usual.

"They want to work more," Marcoux said. It's help she will gladly accept.

With files from Alison Brunette and Spencer Van Dyk

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