Quebec fruit operation takes safety seriously

On the Farm: Ferme François Gosselin employs up to 125 employees, who harvest fresh strawberries and raspberries

ILE D’ORLEANS, Que. — Dozens of farm workers are picking strawberries as the leaves begin to change colour in Quebec.

They are nearing the end of harvest here on Île d’Orléans, a small island outside Quebec City. It’s situated on the Saint Lawrence River and is blanketed with red, orange and yellow maple trees.

The farm, called Ferme François Gosselin, is a staple that serves the region with fresh strawberries and raspberries at grocery stores and markets.

It takes safety very seriously, says Denis Canuel, an agricultural technician with the farm, as he tours members from the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association on Oct. 9.

“Every picker has training adapted to what he will do,” Canuel said. “Upon arrival, we will train them for an hour and a half, and I’m the person in charge of the training.”

Part of the training includes educating them about heat stroke and ensuring they have lots of water and protective clothing. When it’s rainy, they must wear raincoats. They never work when there is a thunderstorm.

If they do ever feel sick at work, he said, one of their colleagues will approach the foreman to take them out of the field.

“It’s very important to have water and a place they can rest if they are sick,” Canuel said. “The foreman has to be aware of the workers.”

He said many of the workers arrive to work at the farm in April. Some come later in June and most start leaving in September.

At its peak, the farm has about 125 employees picking fruit. Depending on the harvest, they can pick anywhere from three to six crates per hour.

They usually take longer in autumn, he said, because fruit is less bountiful than in the summer.

“At this moment, we have to find the strawberries and search,” he said.

Safety is crucial, he explained, because there are lots of people to watch out for and lots of machinery moving on any given day.

“It’s very dangerous here to work,” Canuel said. “We are using trucks and tractors. If a guy is driving and going back with his truck, the rule is he can’t back more rapidly than a man walking.

“There is a lot of rules that way. They are just little ones, but if they weren’t there, there can be a risk.”

During work, the foreman also makes sure the employees are picking effectively. Canuel explained picking fast but missing fruit along the way isn’t good.

He said workers have a number attached to their name, allowing the farm to track each crate to a person. If they find certain crates aren’t up to standard, they are able to locate the person who picked for them.

“It allows us to check up with them on harvest and help them improve,” he said.

Canuel said he will meet with workers who aren’t following safety practices to ensure they adopt them and he puts on training sessions throughout the year as required.

When strawberries move to the storage facility, employees will make a record of them. Canuel said the person is required to record damage because it will help them determine if they have a rat or mice problem.

“We have a system to control and manage that,” he said. “If there is a problem, I will know it soon.”

The storage facility is chilled and workers must get the strawberries and raspberries into it as quickly as possible, he said.

“The fruit is going from 25 C to 3 C in two hours and we have to do it quickly because, as soon as the fruit is harvested, it will begin to decay,” he said.

As for harvest, he explained any fruit that is damaged is picked and thrown back into the field. He explained that damage spreads if the diseased fruit isn’t picked.

“We are on a trial to take the damaged fruit out of the field, but it is very expensive,” he said. “In Europe, they use that technique to prevent disease.”

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