Events by invitation-only became the norm in 2020 as the pandemic curbed in-person contact. The impacts of COVID-19 on research, new product launches and extension efforts will be felt for years to come. 

Dejected workers gather to tear down the brittle leaves of a cucumber crop that perished after Nature Fresh Farms was shut down by public health authorities on June 30, 2020. In a recent short documentary, the story is told how 199 asymptomatic workers tested positive for COVID-19 but no one was ever hospitalized. The devastating effects of losing 7.8 million pounds of produce aren’t just economic but emotional as guest workers have testified. 

Meetups are increasingly scarce. That’s why technology transfer is challenged in the age of COVID-19. Ontario vegetable crop specialist, Travis Cranmer and his colleagues are using new platforms to reach garlic growers Ian and Nathan Teetzel near Exeter, Ontario.

After 45 years of farming, it’s safe to say 2020 has been a year like no other for Ernie Wiens. Due to scant rainfall and high temperatures, grape tonnage volumes are expected to be down by 20 per cent. He’s poised to take a brix test of Chardonnay grapes, one of many varieties grown at the family’s 400 acres of vineyards near Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

High-wire cucumbers require a lot of labour for transplanting, staking, tying, pruning and harvesting. At Vine Fresh Acres, Jake Neufeld says it takes two people per acre to tend to the crop. Photo by Glenn Lowson.

The repetitive task of crop scouting in greenhouses is being replaced by an automated system with artificial intelligence which can detect pests and disease in real time. This bleeding-edge technology is not for everyone. But it’s a new consideration for Jake Neufeld who manages a labour-intensive crop of high-wire cucumbers near Leamington, Ontario. 

The Greenbelt Foundation has identified that vertical farming as well as several fruits and vegetables are ripe for expansion in Ontario’s $2.2 billion horticultural sector. They are garlic, eggplant, sweet potatoes, fresh grapes, pears and strawberries. Jeff Tigchelaar, Jordan, Ontario is one berry grower enjoying robust sales at the Ontario Food Terminal.

Photo by Glenn Lowson

Last July, this display of plenty from Oxford County grower John Den Boer was captured at the Ontario Food Terminal. As the summer of COVID-19 unfolds, the variety and volume of fruits and vegetables may not be in such grand array because growers do not have timely access to enough seasonal ag workers for essential planting and harvesting. The legal case of Brett Schuyler signifies the height of the hurdles faced by growers across Canada. 

The Schuyler family near Simcoe, Ontario is in the midst of gathering the workers required for two shifts a day that require 60 workers each in July. Since this photo was taken in May 2019, Ray Vogel (L) has retired and Ryan Schuyler is part of the management team searching for solutions. Photos by Glenn Lowson.

Sour cherry trees will be in blossom in May, immune to the world pandemic of COVID-19 virus. Although an uplifting sight, the outstanding question is how they will be harvested in two months. This cover story quotes several horticultural industry leaders on what’s happening now and potential paths forward. 

Seasonal agricultural workers such as Jamaican Willy Green are crucial to the 2020 growing season. The federal government is providing exemptions to the travel ban however logistics are still to be announced. 

Dr. Mary Ruth McDonald (right) and Master’s student Alexandra Dacey.

Dr. Mary Ruth McDonald has mentored dozens of students as professor of plant agriculture, University of Guelph. Equally at home in the field, she’s working with Master’s student Alexandra Dacey, documenting carrot weevil found in carrot trials at the Muck Crops Research Station in Bradford, Ontario. 

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