Recommendations made to help Ont. labour shortages

A shortage of workers in Ontario agriculture might be limiting growth and diversification for the industry.  |  Mike Raine photo

Both attracting people to the industry and making it possible to live in rural communities a challenge

Farm labour shortages in Ontario have reached crisis levels since the start of the pandemic.

The National Farmers Union, Ontario region, and the Ontario Federation of Agriculture have recommendations to address the problem.

NFU farm labour coordinator David Thompson said the biggest issue is lack of living wages.

“Farm workers in Ontario specifically are not regulated under minimum wage laws,” Thompson said. “The traditional reliance on unpaid labour plays a big role in this … and the other part that’s really key is that small and mid-sized farmers themselves have very little take-home pay.”

Farmers may need extra help on the farm but often can’t offer the wages labourers want or need.

“They’re pinched in terms of their ability to provide a living wage, which really affects them in many rural areas,” said Thompson. “They can’t compete with the wages being offered (elsewhere).”

The OFA has worked with the Canadian Agriculture Human Resources Council to identify labour shortages and provide training in Ontario. A project was started in the spring of 2020, early in the COVID-19 pandemic, to help deal with agri-food sector labour shortages.

“It is kind of frustrating for sure, because even though Canada was experiencing probably the biggest spike in unemployment that we’ve seen in decades, we did not see more people looking for jobs in agriculture,” said Cathy Lennon, general manager of the OFA.

“That’s certainly why we launched the Feeding Your Future project. It was kind of to try to match up some of those underemployed or unemployed with some jobs in the agricultural sector.”

Lennon said there are a variety of reasons for the farm labour shortage.

“The rural location of a lot of these jobs is a barrier for some folks in terms of being able to get transportation or access to these jobs,” she said.

Other issues include the physical labour involved, seasonal versus full-time work and wages.

The OFA recommends promoting jobs in agriculture to people unfamiliar with the field and noted the need for strong internet access in rural areas. It also suggested collaboration with universities that could send graduating students into the ag industry.

“We think that a lot of times when people think about a job in agriculture, they think about a farm job,” Lennon said.

“So trying to make sure that people (realize) there’s jobs in technology, there’s jobs in marketing, there’s jobs in science and nutrition and all kinds of stuff there to look at.”

The NFU put its recommendations into two categories, one for producers, community groups and stakeholders to do themselves, and another aimed at municipal, provincial and federal legislation changes.

These recommendations include farm labour grants for small and mid-sized farms, the overhaul of temporary worker’s programs, proper housing for farm workers and specific training for operators.

Grants for small and mid-sized farms could address wage issues, it said.

“We’re looking for ways to move towards greater resiliency for small and mid-sized farms,” Thompson said. “I think the NFU sees a number of intersecting challenges here and opportunity.”

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