Agriculture needs solution to its worker shortage

One has to wonder if the federal government knew about all the arms and legs needed — quite literally — to fulfill its goal of becoming the second largest exporter of agricultural products in the world by 2025.

Many of those arms and legs — in this case farm labour — are missing or seriously underdeveloped.

The issue is most pronounced in rural areas. The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council’s recently published research says labour vacancies cost producers nearly twice as much as they did four years earlier, when it also warned about farm labour shortages.

So things aren’t getting better; they’re getting worse. More than 16,000 jobs went unfilled last year, costing $2.9 billion in lost revenue, up from $1.5 billion estimated in the previous research.

Labour requirements in the agricultural sector will only grow with big goals for exports. By 2029, the labour gap is projected at 123,000 people, the CAHRC says.

If so many jobs were left unfilled in the auto industry, which is largely centred in urban areas, it would be called a crisis.

Grain, oilseeds and beef producers will see the largest increases in labour gaps, which covers the largest part of farming. Farmers have stopped posting many of their jobs because they know it’s fruitless.

Farm operations are cancelling plans to expand, and the labour shortages are adding to the already well-documented stress on farmers.

How can the sector take advantage of the opportunity offered for exports from new trade deals if this situation persists?

Rural areas tend to be populated with older residents. (Pending retirement from farming is another looming issue.) Young people are moving to urban areas for jobs and entertainment. It has been like this for a long time.

The federal government has announced plans to provide broadband internet — one of the key developments to improved opportunity in rural areas — to all homes in Canada by 2030. Can it be done faster?

Rural housing remains a major issue. Immigrants who might fill jobs or even urban refugees can’t find suitable housing, especially if families are involved.

The Temporary Foreign Workers Program is undergoing changes. Foreign workers fill about 17 percent of agricultural jobs, but no one expects an increase in temporary workers to provide the solution. Turnover is too great.

A recently announced three-year pilot program that is expected bring in 2,750 immigrant spots for three years is being welcomed by the meat sector. A patchwork of provincial programs help some immigrants transfer to permanent resident status, which is helpful, but it is not happening fast enough.

There are suggestions on how to change the programs, but a consensus isn’t clear. A proposal to allow immigrants to switch jobs and work in different sectors could see farms lose labour they have spent time training, yet it could also attract more workers.

Transportation issues and religious and cultural adjustments must be addressed. More program funding will be needed to expand cultural diversity in rural areas to make immigrants feel welcome. Immigrants seek cultural and religious community, or at least acceptance of theirs.

There is no single solution to this. It will take a focused, multi-pronged approach to make rural living attractive. Education in schools to show the potential for work in the agriculture sector would be helpful to attract people from other parts of Canada. Opportunity is a powerful magnet.

Changes to eligibility rules for foreign workers will help.

Agriculture offers so much promise for economic growth and opportunity, but it will take painstaking work in a wide variety of areas to realize that growth.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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