How Will Canada’s Farmers Handle the COVID-19 Crisis?

How Will Canada’s Farmers Handle the COVID-19 Crisis?

There is an element about this Coronavirus pandemic that is being overlooked.

With Canada – and indeed most of the rest of the world – now putting in travel restrictions and recommendations for “self-isolation” for at least 14 days, there is going to be significant disruption across the country to the Canadian agriculture industry.

This is exactly the time when Canadian fruit growers, vegetable farmers, grain farmers, commercial beekeepers and other farmers begin to bring in temporary foreign workers. They do so under the federal “Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program” and the “Ag-Stream” program.

Every year more than 140,000 seasonal agricultural workers are brought in to Canada. They come from places like Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, the Philippines and other nations. This is timed for spring planting, summer growth and fall harvest. Canada’s agriculture sector cannot do without these added temporary seasonal employees. And this is just a small portion of the more than 340,000 or more TFWs Canadian businesses use annually.

Canada’s Need For Temporary Foreign Workers

For more than 50 years Canada has used temporary foreign workers to backfill its agricultural labour needs. In 2016, a study by the Conference Board of Canada (.pdf) estimated that one in 10 agricultural workers came from outside the country.

Another study by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council in 2017 pointed starkly to our needs. Canada’s horticulture farms “produced over $6 billion in annual direct farm cash receipts, with Canadian vegetable exports accounting for $1.5 billion and fresh fruit exports accounting for $1.2 billion.”

We simply do not have the local labour necessary to carry out what many see as menial, low-paying and physically demanding jobs. And yet these jobs are crucial to keeping Canada’s agricultural economy operating.

Canada’s Commercial Beekeepers Depend On TFWs

Canada’s beekeepers, for example, need thousands of experienced workers to get hives ready for pollination and production. We have less than a month to begin preparing for the spring bloom, and time is critical.

Berry growers in the Lower Mainland need to get their bushes ready now, applying nutrients and other additives.  Tree fruit growers in the Okanagan depend upon early workers for proper pruning to optimize harvest.

In our little Creston Valley alone dozens of seasonal workers come every year to work on cherry orchards, farm market gardens and more.

All of these agricultural sectors are unable to get enough local workers, particularly experienced ones. You can look at classified ads – see the Canadian Honey Council as an example – to know that right now there is a high demand for seasonal workers.

What Is The Government Doing About This?

This week I called B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham’s office to raise this issue. They are well aware of the looming labour crisis. They say they are trying hard to get temporary foreign workers with valid work permits into the country.  Unfortunately, that conversation came on the same day the federal government announced it was closing its borders to all but Canadians and – for now – U.S. citizens.

The Additional Demands of “Self-Isolation”

In addition to the disruption in travel, there is now an added requirement for self-isolation. That necessary step will add costs to the employer and also keep many workers idle once they get here. The closure of all airports to international travel except Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal means employers may face added difficulty getting their workers to the farms if and when the rules are relaxed.

If the timing and availability of workers slows significantly, some farmers may forego bringing in TFWs this year. This will result in reduced yields and harvest. This is not an inconsequential decision. Farmers are required to pay the full costs of bringing in seasonal workers, including airfare, accommodation and medical insurance.

How Is It Affecting Us?

In our particular case, we are not significantly affected. We have one worker slated to come from Kenya who is currently stranded there while that country’s borders remain closed. She will likely not get here until after the pollination period. We have lots of work for her during the self-isolation period. My point is that COVID-19 has the potential to significantly damage Canada’s agriculture industry. Our option is to do more work ourselves or retrench and lower our expectations for honey, bees and other products we produce.

I have not yet seen any coherent response from the federal government. Will it make allowancces to get TFWs into the country this spring? I don’t know.  But I know that the Canadian Honey Council is gravely concerned about this.  I would imagine that other agricultural commodity groups are doing the same.

In the meantime, the work proceeds. I am sure a lot of farm house kitchen lights will be burning earlier in the morning and later into the night.

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