PEI

Using Canadian workers on farms not feasible, says farm group

Temporary foreign workers, delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, are beginning to arrive and go to work on Canada’s farms, and that’s good news for everybody, says Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services.

Reliable labour supply needed throughout the season, group says

Temporary foreign workers make up about eight per cent of farm labour on P.E.I., according to the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

Temporary foreign workers, delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, are beginning to arrive and go to work on Canada's farms, and that's good news for everybody, says Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services.

That farm group, based in Ontario, co-ordinates bringing in workers from around the world to help plant, grow and harvest Canada's crops. The federal government initially shut the border to them last month, but then opened it, and offered financial assistance to farmers hiring them.

"We were glad to hear that the minister of agriculture for Canada really recognized what these folks mean to the industry and what they mean to the food supply," said Ken Forth, president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services.

"We were very grateful to the minister for stepping up and saying you know this industry is important."

The P.E.I. government announced a program to encourage Island students to get work on farms last week, and P.E.I. Sen. Diane Griffin, along with colleagues Brian Francis and Mike Duffy, asked the federal government to incentivize farming jobs.

Forth said he would not support those ideas because farmers need a reliable supply of labour from planting to harvest, and he worries about what would happen when the economy starts to open up and other jobs become available.

"What do we do when they go back to work in July?" he said.

Some crops cost as much as $10,000 a hectare to plant. No farmer can afford to put that crop in and then see it go unharvested due to a lack of workers.

"I can't imagine what a heartbreak it would be if you had folks working there and then all of a sudden, 'Well, I got my other job back. I'm gone.' And in the middle of July you leave lots and lots of money on the table," said Forth.

"It would finish the farm off."

Safety concerns

While some Canadians are concerned temporary foreign workers could bring COVID-19 with them into the country, Forth believes if properly handled, temporary foreign workers would actually be safer than domestic labour.

Forth has temporary foreign workers on his Mississauga-area farm, west of Toronto, helping him plant broccoli. They've been through a self-isolation period, and they have no interest in leaving the farm. He and some other farmers in the area have made arrangements to have groceries and other supplies delivered.

I may get off the phone from you and five minutes later everything could change.— Ken Forth, Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services

"Our guys say to us we came here to make money. We didn't come here to socialize; we didn't come here to get sick," said Forth.

"[If] you have 20 people on the farm and they never go anywhere and never see anybody else other than us … the risk is low because there's no association with anybody else. If we had other people moving into the farm every day and then going home at night, I can see about a thousand times more possibility of contamination."

There have been delays in getting the workers to Canada, said Forth, and it has been costly having to pay them while they are self-isolated.

Trying to catch up

Beyond the initial Canadian ban, there have also been issues getting the workers out of their home countries. And like so many other things with the pandemic, the situation can change rapidly.

"I may get off the phone from you and five minutes later everything could change," Forth said.

"I've been in the program for 50 years and I've never seen anything as erratic as this. Nobody is making it erratic, just the situation is."

But the travel problems and waiting for the workers' self-isolation to end is rapidly becoming a new normal, he said.

Currently, the supply of temporary foreign workers is about two weeks behind, which has been a problem particularly for greenhouse operations and early crops such as asparagus. But Forth believes they will be able to catch up, and hopes for something close to a normal growing and harvest season.

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Island Morning

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