Ontario asparagus farmer's $750K crop on the line if temporary foreign workers delayed

John Jaques has about 32 hectares of asparagus growing in his fields near Thamesville, Ont. and harvest time is quickly approaching.

John Jaques said he hires as many Canadians as possible, but needs foreign labour

Thamesville asparagus farmer John Jaques is concerned temporary foreign workers from Mexico won't arrive in time to pick his crop. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

John Jaques has about 32 hectares of asparagus growing in his fields near Thamesville, Ont. and harvest time is quickly approaching.

"We'll probably end up having to mow some asparagus down because we don't have anybody to pick it," said Jaques, who owns Sunshine Farms on Jane Road.

Jaques brings in 30 to 35 temporary foreign workers from Mexico at this time of year, but border restrictions amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is keeping them away.

"We hire as many Canadians as we can but not many Canadians want to pick asparagus," he said. "So we have to bring in offshore labour."

Workers likely won't arrive until April 24 and will then need to be self-isolated for 14 days indoors. 

Temporary foreign workers usually pick asparagus at John Jaques' farm near Thamesville. (Submitted by John Jaques)

They'll then have to start picking asparagus immediately, because harvesting usually begins around May 5. Jaques said that's cutting it close.

'We'd like to see the federal government class them as essential workers," he said.

An added challenge, Jaques said, will be isolating workers in the bunkhouse where they live.

Hired hands typically sleep three to a room, but Jaques said he'll have to find a way to keep only two to a room to maintain a two-metre distance from one another.

Jaques said COVID-19 protocols dictate workers have to stay indoors in their bunkhouse during the 14 day isolation, but he said having them outdoors in the field would make it easier to distance themselves and they'd be able to work. 

"It's going to be a bit of a challenge doing the isolation thing, but I'm sure we'll figure it out," he said.

One of the rooms in the bunkhouse at Sunshine Farms being prepared for temporary foreign workers. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

Meanwhile, the general manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers said he expects workers will be coming in by April 14 — later than usual.

Joe Sbrocchi welcomes students or others who find themselves out of work to apply for the jobs.

"It just helps our communities in general, the ones that we serve, and I believe that most people want to do that. They want to help their neighbours and the people around them," said Sbrocchi. "And in particular in these times where a lot of people aren't working, this might be a help to their families."

Jaques said his crop will likely be lost if workers aren't available by the first week of May.

Asparagus in John Jaques fields in 2019. (Submitted by John Jaques)

"If they have to sit in the bunkhouse for two weeks, then you're past the middle of May and the first two weeks of May are usually our biggest production," he said. "If they're not here for that, then it's not worth having them come."

Jaques said his asparagus crop is worth $750,000.


Dale Molnar

Video Journalist

Dale Molnar is an award-winning video journalist at CBC Windsor. He is a graduate of the University of Windsor and has worked in television, radio and print.


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