Hardest harvest reveals hard truths and even harder questions

When guest workers are given a role, pride shines through. That emotion was laid bare in a new 22-minute documentary, “The Hardest Harvest” recently released by Nature Fresh Farms, Leamington, Ontario. 


“When you feel you have your own area, you feel as if it’s your own crop,” says Gervacio Estrada, a seasonal worker from Mexico. “When you think that everything will be spoiled, your heart hurts even if you think it’s not my own crop but my boss’s.”


That despair was shared by almost 600 workers when the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit shut down the Nature Fresh greenhouse facilities on June 30, 2020. The owners and managers – Peter Quiring, John Ketler, Matt Quiring and Cornelius Neufeld – had led the way in advocating for on-farm COVID-19 testing, believing that all protective measures had been followed to the letter of the law. But when 199 asymptomatic workers tested positive, the ensuing health directive was dramatic and immediate. These workers were bussed to off-site hotels to self-isolate. And all workers – domestic and foreign – were forbidden from entering the greenhouse. 


It would be two weeks before the 160-acre facility became fully staffed again. Some of the crops survived. But in those humidity-saturated days, starved of fertilized water, some of the tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers were lost -- 7.8 million pounds. 


To make matters worse, Nature Fresh Farms was prevented from continuing to deliver culturally-appropriate food to their isolating workers. The Red Cross failed to provide satisfactory food, both in quality and quantity, prompting more outrage from workers. Ironically, the agencies designed to protect foreign food workers were not up to the task of feeding them. 


As Peter Quiring, president, Nature Fresh Farms, recalls the hard truth of the virus crisis, “There were lots of people in charge, but no one was accountable.”


Months after the coronavirus became a real and present danger, Ontario’s greenhouse growers are re-planting. John Ketler, vice-president, Nature Fresh Farms, says that the same crops, same acreage are now being planted for 2021. And nothing has changed the sector’s steadfast pledge to care for and protect guest workers who come year after year to Canada to support their families.


As farm worker Juan Jose Coredero Bran shares in translation, “Separating hurts a little, but at the same time there is peace of mind because we know that there will be better well-being.”  


Consumers, for their part, are seemingly unconcerned about disruptions to food supplies. The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity released its 2020 Public Research in mid-November, noting that consumer trust is at an all-time high. In fact, the survey of 2,903 Canadians recorded a 12-point increase to 47 per cent when consumers were asked: “Overall, would you say that the food system in Canada, including how food is grown, produced and sold, is moving in the right direction or the wrong direction.”


The findings are somewhat surprising given the negative newspaper headlines about guest workers and the public scrutiny of the food supply. But as Mike von Massow, the University of Guelph chair of Food System Leadership, blogged this fall, “The narrative that labour and other constraints on both food production and processing will affect Canadian food security is overblown.”


He made the case that food supplies are plentiful and that Canadians will continue to depend on imports.


“While the food security argument might resonate more with policy makers and the general public (through the media), it is not clear that either the long term or currently worsened crisis has had any substantial effect on food security,” he wrote in an October 2020 blog. (Link here: https://bit.ly/2IYw1J8)


Farm security, he acknowledged, is real with pressures to remain viable and profitable. 


For business owners, the difficult question being asked going forward is how to assess and manage risk after a year as tempestuous as 2020. Will the Canadian/U.S. border remain open to essential traffic?  Will changing rules for housing guest workers be reasonable and executable in time for new arrivals?  Will the process for applying for guest workers be responsive or will new sources of workers be required from other countries in South America? 


To a large extent, these questions are beyond the control of individual businesses, but they are certainly in the domain of umbrella organizations such as the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers (OGVG), the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association and Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS). 


Working at local, provincial and federal levels, Joe Sbrocchi, general manager, OGVG, looks out over the next two to three years and foresees a flex workforce of 400 to 500 for the greenhouse sector. If on-farm, rapid testing becomes a reality in 2021, it’s possible there could be a small percentage of positives who will need to isolate. And with history leading the way, those workers will need to be replaced tomorrow, if not sooner, to avoid on-farm disasters.


“In the long run, it’s prudent insurance,” says Sbrocchi.



Editor’s note: -To view “The Hardest Harvest” link here: 





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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

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