Born to farm in Canada

(L-R) Byron Kemp, Manus Boonzaier and Alfredo Velazco-Vazquez, Algoma Orchards, Newcastle, Ontario. Photos by Glenn Lowson.
This is one of several Orsi platforms used to prune 1,100 acres of high-density orchards situated near Lake Ontario.

The next generation of farmers may not be born in this land, but for this land. Statistics Canada does not track foreign-born farmers, but here is one story of how a fourth-generation business is recruiting talent from other countries.


At every level, access to labour is an overarching theme in horticulture. As minimum wage rates increase in several Canadian provinces, there is upward pressure on all salaries. Farmers are concluding that the faster they can automate, the higher likelihood they can stay in business. Those changes require tech-savvy managers.


Algoma Orchards, deemed Canada’s largest apple grower with 1,100 high-density acres near Newcastle, Ontario, is already in transition with a creative mix of staffing. Their confidence is in farm manager Manus Boonzaier who will turn 30 this year. He brings to the table a pomology degree and tree fruit experience from his native land: South Africa.


“There’s no growth for me there,” recalls Boonzaier. He grew up on a citrus farm, then was a farm manager of an olive grove before moving to an apple farm to look after crop protection and food safety. Almost all of South Africa’s fruit is shipped abroad under GlobalGAP standards, so he brings an intimate knowledge of the highest standards of production.


“There’s not a difference in coming to Canada,” says Boonzaier. “All the multinationals have the same products wherever you go. The challenge is that in Canada we currently have re-evaluations (of crop protection products) that could make us uncompetitive with the U.S.” 


Boonzaier’s desire to emigrate to Canada was admittedly two-fold. His inlaws live in Canada, but he was also determined to put his talents to use in a managerial way. While it took more than a year to process the paperwork, he remembers his date of arrival without hesitation – September 29, 2013.


The unusual trajectory is not his alone. Luis Ruiz is a farm supervisor, originally from El Salvador. He emigrated in 2005, first to Alberta to work with a nursery business. He moved east to Algoma Orchards in 2013, seeking a more moderate climate. He is joined by Alfredo Velazco-Vazquez, a Mexican who first worked at Algoma Orchards under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program. Together, this globally recruited team is bringing a blend of talents to an industry that’s craving not only youth but long-term dedication.


“This is a multicultural team,” says Ruiz. “I believe that’s a big plus in moving forward. We help each other every day to get the job done. It’s very rewarding to pick the fruit in the fall. Because I speak Spanish, I can help any of the workers who is having a problem. We solve it together.”


For Kirk Kemp, co-owner of Algoma Orchards along with Mike Gibson, he’s tickled that the business has evolved in this direction. Managers are sent to the International Fruit Tree Association tours to keep current.


“The more technology we use, the bigger the interest from this new generation,” says Kemp who has seen many changes over 42 apple seasons. That said, there is still a need to be on the land, observing the effects of last year’s herbicide program, taking note of leaf disorders and being keen on what’s happening in apple development.


“You still have to get your hands dirty,” says Kemp. “I knew that Manus was the right guy when I met him in the orchard at 4 am, getting ready to spray. It was still dark and he was there ready to go.”


It would seem that transition has gone more smoothly at Algoma Orchards than on many family farms. Kemp’s two sons, Byron and Eric have roles in the operation, each playing to their strengths. Making room for the newcomers has required respect for their individual talents and how they can help grow the business in the long-term.


For Algoma Orchards, the next generation looks different than the owners would have predicted a decade ago. With open thinking, the answer to continuity may be in the next county or another country altogether.


For a “Behind the Scenes” podcast with Kirk Kemp, click here.

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Publish date: 
Thursday, January 25, 2018

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