The Current

B.C. orchards, wineries 'just hoping for the best' as another COVID summer approaches

Although people had high hopes for a better new year, some fruit and wine producers in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley say they’re facing the same challenges as in 2020. And with a third wave of COVID-19 sweeping the country, new travel restrictions in B.C. and stay-at-home orders in Ontario could throw another wrench in this year’s harvest.

Okanagan Valley business owners worry travel restrictions could hamper business

Orchardist Sukhdeep Brar inspects cherries on his Summerland, B.C., property last year. The pandemic caused a shortage of agricultural workers in B.C. in 2020, and Brar says it persists. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

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When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Canada last year, Brarstar Orchards owner Sukhdeep Brar was unsure where he would sell his fruit, or if he'd even be able to export it.

He runs about 55 hectares of land in Summerland, B.C., where he grows cherries, peaches, apples and pears.

But his fears about getting his products into consumers' hands were quickly eclipsed by the realization that he might not have enough workers to pick the fruit in the first place.

"We had massive labour issues last year, and it's actually continued right into this year," Brar told The Current's Matt Galloway. "We just couldn't ever really gain momentum and catch up again."

Last spring, the pandemic triggered a shortage of 6,000 to 8,000 workers in B.C.'s agricultural sector. Brar alone was down half the number of usual staff — both local and temporary foreign workers — and had to enlist relatives to help with fruit picking.

Although people had high hopes for a better new year, some fruit and wine producers in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley say they're facing the same challenges as in 2020. And with a third wave of COVID-19 sweeping the country, new travel restrictions in B.C. and stay-at-home orders in Ontario could throw another wrench in this year's harvest.

Continued labour issues

Last week, Ontario and Quebec closed their borders to each other amid climbing COVID-19 case counts. Brar said he worries it could further impact his ability to hire workers to pick fruit.

"We use quite a lot of French Canadian backpackers that come to the valley for a vacation and also [to] harvest cherries," he said. "We don't know how long [the border closure will last], but I'm hoping that it's lifted before the summer harvest starts."

Brar told Galloway he's already expecting a six-week delay in bringing foreign workers in after Canada halted flights from Mexico and the Caribbean earlier this year.

"It's basically déjà vu of last year, where associations are getting together and chartering flights in for workers," he said. "And that just adds costs and time to everything."

The Okanagan region relies on approximately 4,500 migrant workers to tend to fields and orchards each year, many of whom come from the Caribbean or Mexico, according to the B.C. Fruit Growers' Association. Migrant workers are currently exempt from Canada's travel restrictions, but must quarantine and get tested for COVID-19 after they arrive. 

Brar at his orchard in April. He says he's worried about how border restrictions in Ontario and Quebec might impact the number of French Canadians coming to visit and work on his orchard this summer. (Dana Kelly/CBC)

Christine Coletta, co-owner of Okanagan Crush Pad Winery, said some temporary foreign workers have already arrived for the season, and have even received their first vaccine doses after quarantining in Vancouver. Coletta and her husband also built a new house for the workers over the winter, with a separate bedroom for each of them, to help ensure their safety.

Christine Coletta, co-owner of Okanagan Crush Pad Winery in Summerland, built a new house for workers over the winter. Each will have a separate bedroom for safety. (Dana Kelly/CBC)

Last year, several temporary foreign workers at a different farm in the Okanagan region raised concerns that their living and working conditions put them at risk of contracting COVID-19, after several workers tested positive for the virus. In Ontario, more than 1,780 migrant workers contracted COVID-19 last year. Three workers died.

Coletta said the pandemic has made her think about her employees' health in a new light.

"I always looked at my employees and … assessed their physical well-being," she said. "And I've really learned this past year that the mental health component … and supporting that is equally as important, if not more important."

In a normal year, wineries in the region would open in April, Coletta said. But in 2020, Okanagan Crush Pad remained shuttered until June. 

She's hopeful her business can open after the May long weekend this year, when B.C.'s travel restrictions are expected to end.

Coletta said her focus now is on shifting from a customer service model to a direct-to-consumer approach. 

Instead of having customers standing at wine-tasting bars, Crush Pad began hosting seated tastings last year. Coletta said she's also been working on selling wine that was originally earmarked for restaurants to private retail chains.

Shifting business models

The way Len Filek does business has changed a lot since the start of the pandemic, too. 

He's the general manager at Summerland Sweets and Sleeping Giant Fruit Winery.

Before COVID-19, thousands of people would visit his store, he said. But since last year, his business has moved to taking mail and phone orders. 

"It turned out that we had a fairly good year, found new markets and new places to distribute our products thanks to the loyal customers that we had," Filek said. 

Len Filek, general manager of Summerland Sweets and Sleeping Giant Fruit Winery, has shifted his business to taking mail and phone orders. (Dana Kelly/CBC)

As Coletta looks to what the future holds for her industry, she hopes people across the country will seek out homegrown products.

"It would help us weather this COVID storm," she said.

Another lesson she said she's learned from the pandemic is to remain calm. 

As Brar heads into another harvest, he's approaching things with a similar attitude.

"Being a year into this now, and not really knowing what's going to be coming up, we just have to take it day by day," he said. "We're just hoping for the best."

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Alison Masemann, Anne Penman and Dana Kelly.

Hear full episodes of The Current on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

Canada's Road Ahead banner 2. (CBC)

This story is part of Canada's Road Ahead, The Current's series talking to Canadians about how the pandemic has changed their lives, and what comes next. Read and hear more of those stories here.

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