Labour shortage hampers B.C. fruit harvest

Lack of workers so dire that some producers have been forced to leave trees unpicked or appeal for inexperienced labour

PENTICTON, B.C. — In the topsy-turvy era of COVID-19, some in the British Columbia fruit industry actually welcomed a lighter-than-usual cherry crop this summer because there weren’t enough people to help with the harvest.

“If we would have had a normal cherry crop, we would have been sunk,” said Glen Lucas, general manager of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association.

With limited manpower, he continued, some growers were forced to leave fruit on their trees.

“They were still picking when the next variety came up (for harvest), so they’d have to make a decision and move on to the next block,” Lucas said in an interview from his office in Kelowna.

The shortage of pickers was so dire at the peak of the cherry harvest in mid-August the BCFGA issued an appeal for people with no experience in the business to lend a hand.

“We got some good response from local workers and, surprisingly, we got a few people phoning from Alberta and Saskatchewan,” Lucas said from his Kelowna office.

He estimated 100 people have put their names forward, but it won’t be nearly enough.

B.C. fruit growers have come to rely on an annual summertime migration of young Quebecers for labour. The visitors, who typically number in the range of 1,500 to 2,000, according to government estimates, follow the harvest up and down the Okanagan valley as the different crops ripen.

Lucas estimated only about half the usual number of Quebecers showed up this year as a result of COVID-19.

There are also fewer temporary foreign workers from places like Mexico and the Caribbean because they, too, were hung up by COVID-19 and its quarantine requirements.

While B.C. producers usually welcome about 10,000 temporary foreign workers each year, only 6,400 have arrived in 2020, according to a spokesperson for the B.C. Agriculture Ministry, who said the province spent $9.5 million looking after those visitors while they spent two weeks in quarantine after arriving in Canada.

With the Okanagan’s biggest fruit crop, apples, now just starting to come off, Rick Machial is beginning to worry about where he’ll find workers.

Rick Machial outside his Fairview Orchards packinghouse in Oliver, B.C. | Joe Fries photo

“At our packinghouse, it was tough to get people to start two, three weeks ago,” said Machial, owner of Fairview Orchards in Oliver, about 100 kilometres south of Kelowna. “So I’m a little bit apprehensive that I have to find four or five more people.”

Fairview Orchards has 11 acres of its own cherries, plus packs fruit for about 50 other growers in the Okanagan.

The company annually markets on average 2,000 bins of peaches and cherries, plus 9,000 bins of apples. Each bin weighs about 800 pounds. Much of it is exported overseas.

Machial said there was talk in the community in the spring about the potential for Quebecers to bring COVID-19 west with them, but he worked to dispel that notion because the Okanagan agriculture industry depends on them.

“I was a voice saying we need them here,” said Machial.

The B.C. government agreed, and worked with producers to set up a pair of key safety initiatives to protect migrant pickers and their hosts.

The first program is an online course, available in English and other languages, that outlines COVID-19 safety procedures. Workers have to complete the course before being eligible to take advantage of the second major initiative: managed campground facilities.

Not every producer who hires pickers has facilities for them, leaving some migrant workers to camp wherever they can find space to pitch a tent. But that worried officials, who feared pickers without access to clean water and sanitary facilities would be at risk of COVID-19.

As a result, the B.C. government has spent $370,000 setting up managed camps with showers, washrooms and cooking facilities near Oliver and Summerland in the Okanagan, plus Creston in the Kootenay region.

Apple harvest is expected to run into November in some areas, so it will be awhile before anyone knows if the efforts to secure labour paid off.

“Industry and government have moved heaven and earth to get things going this year,” said Lucas.

“It was kind of like designing an airplane while it was still in the air.”

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