Windsor

Leamington farm operator says business owners not to blame for COVID-19 in agri-farm sector

The president and CEO of Nature Fresh Farms says now is not the time to assign blame for COVID-19 in the agri-farm sector, calling on a unified response to protect workers and prevent the spread of coronavirus throughout the community. 

'This is not the time to throw each other under the bus,' says Peter Quiring

Peter Quiring is the president and CEO of Nature Fresh Farms. (Jason Viau/CBC)

The president and CEO of Nature Fresh Farms says now is not the time to assign blame for COVID-19 in the agri-farm sector, calling on a unified response to protect workers and prevent the spread of coronavirus throughout the community. 

Peter Quiring, who employs approximately 670 workers — including approximately 360 migrant workers — at his facility in Leamington, spoke to CBC News one day after a media conference during which Ontario Premier Doug Ford confirmed that Windsor-Essex would be the only region prohibited from reopening this Wednesday.

During the conference, Ford pointed to farmers and workers in Windsor-Essex who aren't getting tested as the primary reason for preventing Stage 2 reopenings in the area.

Later that same day, Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens used a media conference to point blame at the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit for not doing more.

On Tuesday, officials — including Tecumseh Mayor and Essex County Warden Gary McNamara — responded to Dilkens' criticism.

"Rather than leadership, we are witnessing finger pointing and deflection to our health unit which has done nothing but work tirelessly over the last few months," said McNamara, who is also chair on the board of health.

For his part, Quiring said "this is not the time to throw each under the bus," saying that all levels of government, as well as other members of the agri-farm sector, need to work together for a "common solution that works for everybody."

"Believe me, the farming industry does not want the rest of the country to suffer," he said. "This is not our goal, it was never our goal."

Mayor of Tecumseh and chair on the board of health, Gary McNamara, had tough words for officials 'pointing fingers' at the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit in regards to the region not entering Stage 2 of reopening. (Windsor Essex County Health Unit/YouTube)

As for the issue of increased agri-farm testing — specifically when it comes to migrant worker populations — Quiring said he's noticed the misconception that farmers aren't interested in getting their workers tested.

"That's absolutely not true," according to Quiring, who has had 36 workers test positive for COVID-19, 25 of whom have since recovered and have returned to work.

Instead, Quiring explained that a significant challenge has been convincing migrant workers to get tested.

"The … workers mostly come from countries where corruption is rampant, the police are not there to protect and serve … and so they already don't trust the government in their country," Quiring said. "So when they come here, they have a natural inclination not to trust the government."

... Once the majority shows up, probably the rest will get tested also.- Peter Quiring, President and CEO, Nature Fresh Farms

Beyond potential concerns about government trustworthiness, Quiring said an additional challenge has been addressing migrant worker concerns about loneliness and other mental health challenges in the event that they test positive and need to self-isolate in a hotel.

"If you get COVID-19 at home, you don't have to go and rent a hotel room for your family," he said.

Workers are now able to self-isolate on the farm, with specific bunkhouses being used for those who test positive. 

As of Wednesday, Quiring said Nature Fresh Farms will play host to on-site testing, adding that he'll be the first in line to get tested. 

This chart compares overall COVID-19 cases in Windsor-Essex to agri-farm worker COVID-19 cases in the region, from May 21 to June 23. (CBC News)

"I have some senior people within our operation that spent over an hour trying to convince workers [Tuesday] morning [that] testing is coming, we need you, you need to get tested, it's in your own best interest," Quiring said. "We think that now we have the majority convinced, and once the majority shows up, probably the rest will get tested also."

As of Tuesday, more than 400 workers in the Windsor-Essex agri-farm sector have tested positive for COVID-19, the majority of whom are migrant workers.

Two migrant workers in Windsor-Essex have died after contracting COVID-19. Additionally, a migrant worker from a farm near Simcoe, Ont. also died following a COVID-19 diagnosis. 

The Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association issued a media release on Friday, announcing a partnership with Essex County leaders to create a plan that will protect the region's agri-farm workers from COVID-19.

On Tuesday, Kingsville Mayor Nelson Santos issued a statement urging farm operators to "take responsibility and encourage testing for all of their employees."

"This is absolutely necessary for the health and safety of the agri-food workers and the community," Santos said. 

CBC News reached out to several other farms in Windsor-Essex with a high number of migrant workers. Those facilities either didn't respond or declined to provide comment. 

With files from Jason Viau

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