Hiring locals to work in ag will be ‘a challenge’

Temporary foreign workers have already been making their way to Canada, but questions remain over whether there will be enough in the summer. | File photo

Farm groups urge the federal government to use financial incentives to encourage Canadians to work in agriculture

Some farmers expect it will be challenging to hire locals for the growing season if they experience shortages of temporary foreign workers and others who typically work in the industry.

Temporary foreign workers have already been making their way to Canada, but questions remain over whether there will be enough in the summer.

As well, it’s anticipated that in British Columbia, typical employees, such as backpackers and international travellers, will be in short supply.

“It’ll be a challenge, but government has been very aware of food security and maintaining economic stability,” said Glen Lucas, general manager of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association.

“Plants don’t stop growing, and we need to be able to employ Canadians to keep things going.”

Lucas said the province receives about 3,000 temporary foreign workers from Mexico and 1,500 from the Caribbean.

As well, they get about 3,000 workers they call backpackers, who largely come from Quebec or other countries.

With the pandemic, he said it’s unlikely the province will see the same number of backpackers return to work. Farms could also be short on temporary foreign workers, he added.

He said this means farms are going to heavily rely on the local workforce, but attracting them hasn’t always been easy.

Office or restaurant jobs usually pay better and aren’t as physically strenuous, he said.

To attract locals to the field, he said he hopes the federal government offers financial incentives. For example, they could receive Canada Emergency Response Benefits (CERB) on top of their wage.

“What we’re asking government is if these unemployed people work on a farm, that not all their earnings get clawed back,” Lucas said.

He applauded the federal government’s decision to fund $1,500 per employee for farms bringing in temporary foreign workers. The funds cover mandatory self-isolation costs. B.C. has also arranged to pay for isolation costs when workers arrive at the airport in Vancouver.

Mary Robinson, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said the organization is working with the federal government to establish incentives that would encourage Canadians to work in agriculture.

During a news conference on April 16, she suggested there have been conversations about letting Canadians keep their CERB payments while working on farms. A group of senators have brought forward such a proposal, as well.

Robinson said health and safety must be a top priority, but she urged the federal government to prioritize food production.

She said domestic food supply must be secure now and into the future. She added that she didn’t want to create panic, but warned that consumers could see higher food prices and decreases in amounts and varieties.

“We need immediate help. Agriculture is at a tipping point,” she said.

Even though Robinson said there might be higher food prices or shortages, other experts have previously said food security should remain stable during the pandemic.

They have said there might be lags in the system, causing shelves to be empty at times. However, they said there could be price increases, noting it’s critical to keep the border open.

Still, Robinson outlined numerous concerns.

She said without enough workers, as well as with market uncertainty, farmers may choose not to plant some fields this year.

“Some farmers are worried about mounting challenges and may halt farm operations all together,” she said.

“This is a potential tragedy, one Canada can’t afford.”

In B.C., Lucas said some apple farmers might decide to grow fewer apples because of labour challenges and increasing costs.

Apples wouldn’t be left unharvested, he said. Instead, farmers can spray the trees with a nitrogen fertilizer that causes them to produce fewer blossoms. With fewer blossoms, there are fewer apples to harvest.

“All of these decisions are up in the air,” he said.

“It’s a really stressful time for growers right now for planning.”

Despite the possibility of fewer workers, there have been efforts to attract Canadians to agriculture.

In Alberta, the government has set up a portal that lets farmers post jobs. Prospective employees can apply for those jobs or post resumés.

However, not all farmers are convinced they’ll be able to hire enough local people. Some have said they tried, but jobs were turned down because of the type of work and pay.

“It’s very hard to hire locals,” said Albert Cramer, president of the Alberta Greenhouse Growers Association.

“If you look at the past, it’s not do-able.”

Cramer said while people might be looking for work now, the situation could change over the next few weeks or months.

If people can go back to their previous jobs, he questioned if they would stay working in agriculture.

“We’re on the end of the food chain. People don’t want to do this kind of work,” he said.

“We could hire locals now, but how long does that last?”

Bridgeview Gardens Shaftesbury, which grows vegetables and strawberries near Peace River, Alta., is looking to employ 10 people.

Mike Marusiak, who owns the operation, said he’s been having a difficult time getting information from the government about temporary foreign workers.

He said the industry relies heavily on them because they are dependable. Without them, he said the horticulture industry would collapse.

He said he is unsure how the pandemic will affect his ability to hire more local people.

“Previous years I would go through a page of locals that wanted to work, but within a couple days, due to it being hard manual labour, my labour pool was no longer,” he said.

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