Fewer hands, less food

Photo by Glenn Lowson

Physical and mental stress from attempting to manage farms through COVID-19 has boiled over into a legal challenge in Ontario’s Norfolk County. The highly fertile area normally produces $519 million in annual farmgate value. But its horticultural farmers are being hobbled by the local medical officer of health’s decision to allow just three seasonal ag workers per bunkhouse, regardless of size, during 14 days of quarantine.

 

Schuyler Farms, supported by affidavits from other area farmers, has filed an appeal to be heard at a five-day virtual hearing before the Ontario Health Services Appeal and Review Board starting May 25. 

 

“While the damage has already been done with the loss of early crops, the worry is that there is no expiration date on the order,” explains Brett Schuyler, a director of the family business based near Simcoe, Ontario which grows 2,000 acres of asparagus, sour cherries and apples. “There’s still time to save crops and to give growers the optimism to plant. We’re looking to have the order rescinded.”

 

Growers are questioning why Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, Haldimand-Norfolk medical officer of health, has exceeded both federal and provincial health guidance in several key areas. Arrival of workers after April 1 was slowed because the order required approving all isolation plans and receiving the identities of all employees before allowing foreign worker flights to be booked. As part of the isolation plans, employers were ordered to flag the perimeter of each bunkhouse, demarcating where workers would be allowed to go. 

 

The health unit’s most controversial move was to distribute identity cards to all farm workers with the intent of listing their name, employer, contact and date of arrival. These  

were provided as a voluntary suggestion, but made farm employers bristle about community perceptions of their workers from Mexico and the Caribbean.

 

“The worry is that this order threatens food security without having a clear benefit to the health of our community and our employees,” says Schuyler. 

  

As of May 11, the result is only half of the planned workforce had arrived for apple pruning and asparagus harvest at Schuyler Farms. Apple orchards will not be pruned to plan, which will result in quality and sizing issues this fall. It also means that 72 acres of asparagus will not be harvested at an estimated loss of $864,000 gross. Another 45 workers are needed by July 2 for sour cherry harvest and an additional 57 workers by September 2 for apple harvest.

 

Schuyler’s experience is a common occurrence elsewhere in the county. One area farmer has cancelled plans to plant any cauliflower at all, while others have reduced their green onions and squash acreage by half. And still others have shelved scheduled plantings of ginseng and strawberry. 

 

In British Columbia, the struggle to source workers has been equally daunting. Alf and Sandee Krause manage 120 acres of strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries near Langley and operate a destination on-farm market and entertainment venue as well. Currently they need a total of 20 Mexican workers, but by mid-May had just three working and another six in 14-day quarantine. 

 

“We’re hoping the next wave (of workers) will come soon,” says Alf Krause, who explains that 90 per cent of his berry crop is hard-harvested or picked by consumers. “After 46 years in business, farming remains the same -- unpredictable! But COVID-19 has dramatically changed the question again. Where does our food come from? We need to be self-sufficient as Canadians.” 

 

When the COVID-19 crisis struck in mid-March, the couple drafted new plans for their year-round business. One significant move was to form allies with a local Langley company, the J.R.Group, which had empty freezers, coolers and laid-off staff. They also struck an agreement with That’s It, a Vancouver café, to resell their pies and frozen berries. These distribution outlets enable the Krause’s to continue to operate their commercial kitchen and bakery in two shifts with 20 full-time employees.

 

With their entertainment venue closed and the cancellation of scheduled weddings and charity events, Sandee Krause has channelled her efforts into comprehensive documentation of new standard operating procedures to ensure the safety of staff and farm labour. 

 

They have set up two options for customers. One is a drive-through system, providing picked berries and pies. The other is U-pick offering a choice of three bucket sizes. Customers pre-pay with the tap function of a credit card. The weight is included in the price. 

 

“We’re feeling more optimistic that people are getting anxious to get out,” says Sandee Krause. “People are in the mood to buy local and they’re willing to stand in line. We’ve made every effort for customers to visit us with the proper spacing requirements while still providing the excellent care that we’re known for.” 

 

Even with these best laid plans, the Krause’s are aggressively attempting to recruit local help for the intense season ahead, holding Zoom group interviews.

 

On the other side of the country in Atlantic Canada, lack of labour continues to crimp progress. On April 28, New Brunswick’s Premier Blaine Higgs, citing health concerns, closed the border to the arrival of temporary workers. While 1,500 workers were already in the province, another 600 were still expectedHe reversed that decision a month later, welcoming seasonal workers May 29 to start a 14-day quarantine. 

 

In Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, farmers are grappling with social distancing and fewer hands. One example is Nova-Agri, the marketing arm of Dykeview Farms and Vital Berry Farm, headquartered at Centreville. The 2,500-acre operation is one of the largest employers of offshore labour in Nova Scotia. Normally, they hire about 210 temporary foreign workers through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program but as of May 8, no workers were on site while 32 Mexican workers were in off-site 14-day quarantine. 

 

“We were incredibly fortunate that we had local students step up to the plate and help us with our spring preparation and early planting season,” says Earl Kidston, CEO for Nova-Agri. “If not, we would have been in dire circumstances.”

 

Without the full complement of experienced seasonal workers, he says, “We are seeing changes in efficiencies this season, down approximately 30 per cent.”

 

As the season progresses, Kidston is expecting more foreign labour to arrive to harvest the high-bush blueberry crop. 

 

 “Our greatest risk is yet to come if we can’t get enough harvest labour,” says Kidston.

 

Nationally, on-the-ground statistics are hard to tabulate during this COVID-19 crisis, but the Canadian Horticultural Council (CHC) has surveyed its members to quantify the extent of labour woes. In virtual testimony to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food on May 15, president Brian Gilroy reported that growers in Ontario and Atlantic Canada are in slightly better shape with 78 per cent of workers landed compared to those requested for this time of year. However, British Columbia is only at 54 per cent of its regular numbers and Quebec, with its heavy reliance on Guatemalan workers, is at just 50 per cent. These numbers were current as of April 30. 

 

Bottom line?  “There is a critical shortage of workers on some farms,” reiterates Gilroy. “Food security is threatened.” 

Karen Davidson, editor of The Grower, goes 'Behind the Scenes' of this story and speaks with Brett Schuyler about Ontario’s Norfolk County public health unit ruling that only three workers would be allowed per bunkhouse regardless of size, for the 14-day quarantine. With less guaranteed access to workers, growers have reduced their plantings and harvesting schedules. Listen to podcast here.

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Monday, May 25, 2020

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