Not so ready-to-pick: Canadian growers left hanging by COVID-19

Canadian fruit and vegetable growers are bracing for "the worst year in history" — not because of the quality of their crops but because they don't have enough people to pick them. Theirs may be an essential industry, but government assistance is falling short against Mother Nature's timelines.

First harvests are here, but the full seasonal workforce is not

Norfolk County's asparagus, seen here in a previous season, should be ready for harvest this long May weekend. (Bernt Solymár/Asparagus Farmers of Ontario)

In any year, a series of early May frosts killing off tens of thousands of dollars worth of asparagus might keep Norfolk County's asparagus growers up at night.

But this year, Ontario produce farmers have another problem: not enough workers to pick their crop, with the first harvest starting this weekend.

"This will go down as the worst year in history for asparagus, and likely for a lot of other crops," said Bernie Solymár, the executive director of the Asparagus Farmers of Ontario.

The green shoots maturing in the sandy soils around Simcoe may be as tasty as ever. But "we're looking at, at best, fifty to maybe sixty per cent of our crew. And that's it," he said.

If it isn't picked, it isn't sold.

"Probably we're going to harvest maybe 50 per cent of our crop," Solymár said — the equivalent of leaving $12 to 15 million in the field.

The COVID-19 pandemic imposed travel restrictions and safety regulations that delayed, discouraged and in some cases prevented seasonal agricultural workers from arriving in southwestern Ontario this year.

Fearing a pandemic "hot spot" that could overwhelm the region's medical facilities, Haldimand-Norfolk's public health unit imposed extra restrictions on the part of Ontario that normally employs more foreign farm help than any other.

Bunkhouse accommodations with multiple kitchens and bathrooms, normally housing three dozen or so workers, were only allowed to house three during the two-week quarantine period.

As asparagus-picking season gets underway in Ontario, growers warn they have only half their usual workforce in place, limiting the size of the harvest and leading some farms to plow their acres under instead. (Bernt Solymár/Asparagus Farmers of Ontario)

Local farmers demanded this order be rescinded, arguing it left them at a disadvantage against growers elsewhere in Ontario — or even across the road, in a neighbouring county. Several got together and hired lawyers.

"It's quite serious," Solymár said. Despite federal financial assistance, "it just got to the point where logistically, you couldn't bring in enough people."

Hiring local 'risky,' 'inefficient'

Some growers already have given up, Solymár said, and are plowing under dozens of acres or choosing not to cut this year.

He scoffs at those who suggest local workers could have been found. The offshore workers who return to Norfolk County year after year are trained and efficient, he said. He estimates it takes 120 locals to do the work of 60 professionals.

Temporarily laid-off local workers may be interested in farm work only until their regular jobs resume, leaving farmers in the lurch. Others might agree to work but never show up. And as long as $2,000 per month is available from the federal government as an emergency benefit, many Canadians won't want to work more than a week or two, for fear of losing their benefits.

So far, Quebec is the only province to take the federal government up on its offer to top-up the wages of essential farm workers.

The way Solymár sees it, there are unappreciated health risks to farmers and their families in hiring local workers. An outbreak at a greenhouse in Chatham Kent started with a local worker, not with offshore help.

Greenhill Produce, a greenhouse operation near Kent Bridge, Ont., had a COVID-19 outbreak last month. A local worker brought the illness into the facility, infecting other temporary foreign workers who then also got sick. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

"A farmer that's isolated his crew from Mexico or Jamaica has some sense of comfort that those guys are clean, that they're not infected," he said. With locals, "you have no idea where they've been, who they've been with, what they've been exposed to …"

The late spring gave growers extra time to get workers out of quarantine. But this first crop affected by the labour shortage won't be the last. Many who pick asparagus move on to other crops later in the season, like sweet corn and apples.

On May 5, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau touted the federal government's extra efforts to bring in temporary foreign workers for Canadian farms, including expedited visa processing and extra diplomatic interventions to get charter flights moving.

With this push, 11,200 workers arrived in April — about 86 per cent of the 13,000 who arrived in April 2019. But some of those were workers who normally arrive in early March.

Extra measures this year

"We were actually the first flight that got cancelled," Niagara vineyard manager Matthias Oppenlaender said, remembering the anxious days in mid-March when the growers who supply Ontario's wine industry suddenly learned their help couldn't come.

The board chair for the Grape Growers of Ontario counts himself lucky now: 21 of the 23 Mexican workers he normally employs were on the first flight available on April 9. Their visas were processed and ready to go before the lockdown hit.

Matthias Oppenlaender, board chair of the Ontario Grape Growers Association, says he understands why extra precautions have to be taken this year, but they might add up to 20 per cent to the cost of his labour. (Matthias Oppenlaender)

The delay was costly. Local help was hired to prune and tie up vines in the meantime. Some of that help is staying on, because everything will be harder this year.

Local hotels provided discount rates to help quarantine workers safely. After the self-isolation period, Oppenlaender's operation rented extra housing so workers could spread out.

Groceries are delivered now, so foreign workers don't make their own way into town. And they stay in the "bubble" of the peers they room with: teams don't mix in the vineyards. The same operator uses a vehicle all day, then wipes it down.

"We make sure they can social distance in the field, which is easy for us — our vineyards are spaced every eight or nine feet," he explained.

Workers in Niagara's vineyards this season are working under new physical distancing rules, labouring in teams based on their accommodations. In the fields, the grapevines are already spaced eight or nine feet apart. (Matthias Oppenlaender/Grape Growers of Ontario)

All in, the extra labour costs could run as high as 20 per cent. But when grapes are sold come November, they're unlikely to bring 20 per cent more revenue from winemakers facing a crisis of their own: the collapse of Niagara's hospitality sector.

Oppenlaender said two major wineries across the road from him are normally like a beehive in the summer. "Now there's nobody. There's no cars in the driveway and we don't know what's going to happen."

While some patriotic isolation drinking has kept online sales relatively strong, the money the tourists bring isn't easily replaced, especially when it comes to finer restaurant wines.

Visas snagged by lockdown

More than nine in ten seasonal agriculture workers in Canada are employed in horticulture.

The agency that facilitates this in Ontario — the Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services ("FARMS") — says 15,000 workers have made it to Ontario so far this year, down from about 17,000 last year. A declining tobacco industry, and other farmers cancelling because of COVID-19, account for about 1,000 of that gap.

On April 29, New Brunswick banned new temporary foreign workers, catching the federal government off-guard and leaving the future of 190 farm workers already approved for that province unclear.

Last week's announcement making it easier for temporary foreign workers already in Canada to switch employers may help.

Visa processing remains the biggest problem. Jamaica was able to file paperwork electronically, but Mexico, which provides half of Canada's seasonal agriculture workers, has struggled with some of the paperwork requirements.

Its embassy in Ottawa says that the Mexican government has now reopened some previously-closed offices to fulfil requests. Canada's embassy in Mexico is streamlining parts of the process. But everything there's been taking longer.

As a result, May arrivals remain uncertain. There's no public, real-time data for specific regions or sectors, but the Canadian Agriculture Human Resource Council is aware of about 2,000 workers expected to arrive from St. Vincent, Jamaica and Guatemala. That's only about one-third of a typical May.

"Workers who had the necessary work permit approvals before lockdown have been, by and large, making their way to Canada," said CAHRC's Debra Hauer. But so long as processing remains difficult, "the number of TFWs will likely slow to a trickle."

On May 8, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino and his officials told MPs on the Commons Human Resources committee that his department is "pushing as hard as it can" with the countries involved to process 4,000 outstanding visa applications.

Nearly 11,000 workers with recently-approved visas are now ready to travel, MPs were told.  About 2,500 of those are in Mexico, according to the Mexican embassy.

'United Nations' normally picks B.C. cherries

About 300 workers from Jamaica were expected in the B.C. government's quarantine facilities this month. But the progress politicians talk about rings hollow in the Okanagan Valley, where Glen Lucas is the general manager of the B.C. Fruit Growers' Association.

Only a month out from peak cherry picking season, "I don't believe we'd be at 80 to 90 per cent of what we'd expect this time of year. Probably closer to 50 per cent or less," he said. "So we are behind in the early maintenance work in our orchards."

That cherry crop is normally picked by what Lucas called a "United Nations" of farm workers: roughly 3,000 Mexican and 1,500 Caribbean workers who return each year, plus a crew of about 3,000 backpackers, roughly half foreign (in B.C. on open work visas), and half Québécois, with a few locals thrown in.

In the Okanagan Valley, growers fear they won't have enough workers to pick their full crops of apples or cherries this year. (Glen Lucas)

"It's hard, physical work," Lucas said. "It requires stamina and dexterity, and those are things common between all these groups of workers."

The backpackers make their own way to the Okanagan from ski hills or tree-planting operations where they're employed earlier in the year.

Backpackers and locals are cheaper for the farms involved than the government's seasonal agriculture worker program, because they don't require accommodations. But recruitment and stubbornly low retention is a perennial concern — even more so during a pandemic, when hitting the road for backpacking adventures seems ill-advised.

Lack of pickers costs billions

Lucas investigated recent government assistance announcements, including the new and revised student employment and wage subsidy programs, but didn't find they offered much to horticulture.

"We don't like to have volunteers," he said. "We pay them for the work they do."

In the meantime, B.C.'s centralized quarantine system for incoming workers — which growers appreciate for taking that responsibility off their hands — meant B.C. farms weren't eligible for the full $1,500-per-temporary-foreign-worker the federal government promised.

The fact that growers aren't housing them for their self-isolation period doesn't mean they don't have extra costs from COVID-19, Lucas said.

Housing is sitting empty, as workers only began arriving over the last two weeks or so. 

"Growers are really under a lot of stress to figure out what's going to happen," he said.

One Canadian Federation of Agriculture estimate put the lost sales caused by farm job vacancies in 2017 at $2.9 billion. 2020 is set to beat that. 

The Okanagan is short of workers in a good year. Some growers are already grappling with the question of whether to leave some fruit on the trees — to cut costs and to make sure they don't prepare for more than they have the labour to pick.

Workers already work long hours and can only be pushed so far.

"To the extent that we have ten per cent less labour, we would harvest ten per cent less apples," Lucas said.

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