New Brunswick

One family farm tries to cope without some of its best workers

A family farm near Woodstock is losing four of its best workers just as the farming season gets underway.

When the province banned temporary foreign workers, it left Strawberry Hill Farm in the lurch

Planting season has begun at Strawberry Hill farm. But the owners have had to start the first of their 50 crops without the help of some of their best workers because the province barred temporary foreign workers. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

As the risk of frost decreases, New Brunswick farmers have started planting this year's crops. 

And many are expecting big things this season. 

In the wake of COVID-19, the demand for locally grown New Brunswick food has never been higher. 

But last week's ban on temporary foreign workers means many farmers will be trying to keep up with that extra demand without some of their best workers, many they've been training for years. 

Demand "skyrocketed" 

When the novel coronavirus brought the province to a halt, New Brunswickers started looking for two things when it came to groceries. They wanted them from local farms. And they wanted them delivered. 

"In March, those market sales, because we do door-to-door delivery service, just really skyrocketed," said Tim Livingstone, who owns Strawberry Hill Farm near Woodstock.  

Livingstone is farming his 325-acre property in a time when it's difficult to buy chickens and seeds are scarce. 

"We went into this season with what we thought was a surplus of chicken and a surplus of pork, and that dried up in a month," said Tim Livingstone. 

Tim Livingstone co-owns Strawberry Hill Farm along with his wife. He says this season will be extremely difficult without the trained workers he's relied on for years. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Premier Blaine Higgs himself said he wanted to see better food security in the province following the outbreak. 

So in response many farmers, including Livingstone, started planning for an increase in planting. 

That meant his work force was going to be more important than ever.  

Each year Livingstone hires four farmhands from Mexico. They've worked the same fields for years and know the job well enough that Tim jokes he can get about one day off a week from full-time farming. 

"All this time the federal government is saying, 'We're going to make this happen. You'll still get your workers,'" said Livingstone.

After Premier Blaine Higgs banned temporary foreign workers to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in New Brunswick, farmers lost some of their best workers and are struggling to keep up. 4:50

Came as a shock

Then the provincial government pulled the rug out from under the plan. 

On April 28, Premier Blaine Higgs announced New Brunswick would ban temporary foreign workers because of health risks. 

"To have the decision, fairly suddenly, that they weren't going be allowed, was a shock," said Tim Livingstone. 

The province wants him to train a new workforce of part-time local workers, specifically New Brunswickers who are without a job right now. 

"Up until 2015 I agreed with that sentiment," said Livingstone. "I had people from other countries asking to come work for me. And I said 'No, we're a local business, we want to hire local.' But we almost went out of business in 2015 and 2016." 

"It's not because New Brunswickers won't work," said Livingstone. "It's not because the job is so bad. It largely comes down to the training and commitment."

Spring planting season has begun at Strawberry Hill Farm. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Strawberry Hill Farm harvests a wide array of crops, and raises and sells beef, pork, chicken and eggs. 

"We raise fifty different crops," said Livingstone. "It takes a full season to get through all the process once. So it takes a full season to train somebody."

The work is almost completely manual labour. Planting seedlings, weeding and harvesting leaves labourers bent over in fields for hours at a time. Rain doesn't offer respite. It moves the job inside to the greenhouses where plants for the next crop are grown from seed. To the uninitiated, or those not used to daily manual labour, the workload is difficult.

Plus, the work only lasts about nine months of the year. And when the season finishes, so do New Brunswick workers. Often they don't even wait that long.

"I have had really good guys who get a full-time job offer," said Livingstone. "They know they're going to be done in November, so they're starting to look in October. A job comes up and they're gone. And I can't blame them. I say, 'Bless you, I would do it if I were you.'" 

Students are also often floated as replacements for foreign workers. 

"That works until September," said Livingstone. 

Livingstone is currently relying on family members and students to plant the spring crops. He was expecting his usual workers from Mexico to be on the farm in a week or two. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Back to school time comes just before most of the farm operations turn to harvesting crops. 

"Students are great," he said. "We hire them every year. My kids have been students, I still have a student and a kid in school. But to build a business around that becomes really challenging because they disappear when we need it most." 

And often after four years, those students move on to careers, leaving farmers with a need to constantly train new workers, who are only employed for four years, and only for select months of the season.

"So, this is why we bring in a few foreign workers, because they give us that stability," said Livingstone.

The province's safety concerns don't hold much water for the farming family, especially given that no other province has the same concerns. 

"The problem is our migrant workers would actually be less of a problem for COVID," said Nollie Livingstone, Tim's daughter who works on the farm alongside her parents. 

Would live on property

Like most farms that host temporary foreign workers, Strawberry Hill Farm provides a house where workers live during their stay in Canada. 

It was expected the four men coming to work this year would quarantine for two weeks in the home they had been staying for the last few years. They would be paid while staying there before going back to work. There were no issues with having to jump through extra hoops to make sure everyone was safe. 

Tim Livingstone's daughter, Nollie, says temporary foreign workers, once cleared, would be safer than New Brunswick employees because they rarely leave the property. She says local workers travel on weekends and go home to family each day. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

"They live on the farm, work on the farm and go to town once a week," said Nollie Livingstone. "Whereas everybody else we bring in goes home every day." 

She says her family only got a call from the government after the decision to ban temporary foreign workers was made.  

Hoping for reversal 

The Livingstone family is hoping the government will reconsider before it's too late in the season. For now, they're scrambling to find any local workers to help them start the season.

Tim Livingstone said the last time they were fully dependent on just New Brunswick labour, he had his 75–year–old in-laws in the field helping the family harvest carrots. He's hoping it won't come to that this year. 

But even if the ban is lifted, the Livingstones may be out of luck as their workers are already starting to look elsewhere. 

 "They basically told us that if they can't come here, they're going to go to another farm," said Nollie. "Because they need it, and because the rest of Canada hasn't cut off migrant workers, they can."

On Monday, Premier Blaine Higgs once again asked New Brunswick farmers to find a way to operate without the temporary foreign workers they've come to rely on. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

About the Author

Shane Fowler

Reporter

Shane Fowler has been a CBC journalist based in Fredericton since 2013.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now