Mushroom industry laments losing productive workers

Under program changes, about 600 skilled mushroom harvesters are forced to return home

Canada’s mushroom farmers have been hit hard by the country’s agricultural labour shortage.

“We have lots of opportunities to increase the market for fresh mushrooms, but our Achilles heel is labour,” said Bill Stevens, chief executive officer of Mushrooms Canada.

Temporary foreign workers have been used, but many are losing their permits and leaving the country.

“Our members across Canada are losing their most productive workers as of April 1. In fact, some have already gone and some have just disappeared from the farms because they don’t want to leave Canada.”

Many in the horticultural sector have taken advantage of the Seasonal Agriculture Worker Program, in which people come to Canada for up to eight months and then return home.

However, this doesn’t work for mushrooms because they are harvested year round. More greenhouses are also facing the same problem as technology helps them operate 12 months a year.

Mushroom produces have asked for a moratorium on the April 1 deadline before their workers leave. They say another year would allow them to negotiate for a program similar to the seasonal worker program but extended to 12 months from eight.

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“This is a program that has proven its value over 45 years, and they come back year after year as experienced, qualified harvesters,” Stevens said.

“We would like a program that assimilates that but applies to year round farming enterprises.”

Skilled harvesters are needed to pick mushrooms, and Stevens said it takes about six months to learn the job well.

“The harvesters have to be trained and understand how to harvest mushrooms in order to respond to the marketplace. We are losing our highest, most productive workers,” he said.

“The impact on the productivity of the mushroom farmers in Canada is taking a serious drop and won’t recover until we have trained labour again.”

The industry employs 5,000 people, and 1,000 of them are temporary foreign workers who work mostly as harvesters.

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About 600 must soon return home.

The government said farms and processors knew these people had to leave so they should have been prepared. Stevens said these jobs must be offered to Canadians first, but mushroom farms did not have much luck attracting people.

“We are not taking Canadian jobs. Canadian have first dibs at all of these jobs. They don’t want to work on the farm,” he said.

Harvesters are paid on a piece work basis based on their productivity. They start at the provincial minimum wage and increases to $15 to $20 per hour as they become more skilled.

Workers have been recruited from around the world.

“A lot of them have made a life here,” Stevens said.

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“They don’t want to go home, and that is why some of them are disappearing.”