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Sask. family relies on Germany for farm labourers

LAMPMAN, Sask. — It was simple economics that brought former German dairy farmer Ole Michaelsen to Canada. However, it is his connection with his homeland that has kept his Saskatchewan grain farm thriving.

Michaelsen has used his contacts to attract workers to help him deal with a labour shortage that is plaguing southeastern Saskatchewan.

Michaelsen and his parents, Otto and Christiane, have been using their ties in Germany to find immigrant labourers for their grain farm as well as for neighbours in the Lampman area.

“Our first worker was a friend of mine who had a farm with his parents in Germany and he offered to come over and help for a season, just for the experience,” said Michaelsen.

That first immigrant worker application in 2008 grew to 20 or 30 applications a year as he became an expert at securing student and summer labourers. They usually come to Canada in two groups: one from April to October and a second group of university students during the school break from July to mid-October.

The Michaelsens agree they could not have expanded their grain operation to its current size of 9,000 acres without the help of international workers from Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

The state of the labour market when Michaelsen immigrated in 2007, followed by his parents in 2008, meant that farm workers were nearly im-possible to find.

“The oilfield in this area draws people away because the money is better and the work schedule is better,” Michaelsen said.

He said European university students and farm hands are eager to work in Canada because the jobs pay up to three times the hourly rate in Europe and working in Canada offers a unique agricultural experience.

The Michaelsens pay their employees $2,200 a month and supply room and board, a cellphone and use of a vehicle. They will often pay for flights as well.

Michaelsen takes care of the immigration paperwork for his neighbours for free. In exchange, the neighbours share workers with the Michaelsens.

Michaelsen’s mother said the give-and-take atmosphere in Canada is something the family had to get used to when they immigrated.

“In Germany, you would never do that,” she said.

“In Canada, we find people more welcoming and friendly, and neigh-bours are happy to work together and help each other out.”

The Michaelsens moved to Canada in response to a land shortage in Germany, which resulted in them not being able to expand their dairy herd beyond 300 head.

They intensively shopped for land in Canada and considered 68 farms, eventually deciding that the Lampman area offered the best opportunity for farm expansion.

“In 2007, we bought 3,000 acres,” Michaelsen said. “The package included the buildings and the equipment.”

The farmer he bought from provided advice, and his hired man stayed on for a year to help with the transition.

The Michaelsens have moved a double apartment trailer onto their yard now that immigrant workers have become an integral part of the operation. It consists of living space for four workers, complete with four bedrooms, two bathrooms and two living rooms.

Students are easy to find because word of mouth creates more than enough applications for the 20 to 30 positions filled in the area each season.

Some of the workers are university students who need to complete a six-month practicum on a working farm. Michaelsen can grant the students their practicum certificates because he has his masters in agriculture degree from the University of Berlin.

The only problem is that provincial legislation has made it more difficult to bring immigrant workers into Saskatchewan.

“Three years ago, the visa application was one page and now it’s a 30-page application and you have to go through a lot of stages, so it makes it really difficult,” he said.

Michaelsen intends to continue using foreign workers, and he believes demand in the area will increase.

Lampman mixed farmer Mark Walter hopes the Michaelsens will be able to continue obtaining work visas. He employs two German workers and regularly hires one or two more students during seeding and harvest.

He said he hates to even think about what it would be like without the work the Michaelsens do to attract European labourers.

“It would be a struggle, that’s for sure,” he said. “We’d have to try to get older farmers, I guess, because it’s really hard down here in the southeast as the oil field draws away so many young people.”

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