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May 27, 2024

Ever pick up an asparagus harvesting knife? Its razor-sharp blade is best left in the dexterous hands of a pro like José Francisco Perez. He’s skilled at quickly spotting prime asparagus, then deftly slicing the spear free from its rhizome. His movements are spare, as he inches down the row on his customized, gasoline-powered harvesting cart.


Perez is a highly valued temporary foreign worker (TFW) at Sandy Shore Farms Ltd., Port Burwell, Ontario. He’s worked at the farm for four years now, returning to his home in San Luis Potosi, Mexico every winter. A big part of what makes him feel at home here in Canada is the ability to chat in his Spanish mother tongue with Sandy Shore’s assistant human resources manager, Pancho Chanquin.


Originally from Guatemala, Chanquin offers another unique story. He came to the farm under the AgStream program in 2022 and then successfully applied for permanent residency. Along with his Canadian-born wife, he now lives in a rental property, a short commute from the farm. Chanquin is often found in the field, deep into conversation with Jamaican Curtis Dixon, Sandy Shore’s harvest and labour manager. Dixon originally came to Canada under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) then switched to the AgStream program. With the support of Sandy Shore Farms, he gained permanent residency.


“Curtis plays a huge role in our operation,” says Amanda Doughty, human resources manager, surveying a work crew at full throttle. “He has up to 146 people reporting to him in the field.”


Doughty, formerly a Best Buy store manager, is now pursuing her dream in human resources.


 “For the last three years, I’ve been responsible for ensuring that labour needs are met to support the operational and strategic goals of Sandy Shore Farms,” she says. “At first, I was looking after the process of Labour Market Impact Assessments (LMIAs), but that role has expanded to not only submitting the LMIAs but truly understanding the AgStream and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). I make sure that we have the right people at the right time in the right roles.”


She supports Curtis Dixon in his training and orientation role. He has created cue cards showing the five growth stages of asparagus. For a new cutter, it’s a daunting task to identify the differences, especially as the season progresses. But after visual training, it’s obvious which seedy heads should stay in the field.


“Quality is very important to us,” says Doughty. “Real productivity is picking only what can be marketable.”


The themes of quality and quantity are important to the farm’s success.  “We have focussed on continuous improvement,” says Doughty. “People need to know their goal. We measure labour costs per pound of produce, graded, packed, and marketed.”


While she doesn’t reveal proprietary data, Doughty does share that worker retention rates have improved markedly over the last two years, increasing from 60 to 73 per cent of the 207 annual workers currently at the farm. She attributes this success to building community amongst the workers who travel from Mexico, Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago. Working alongside her Spanish-speaking HR colleague, she’s been able to respond to after-work needs such as blenders for salsa and dominoes in every bunkhouse.


The El Salvador pilot


Coming off this track record, Sandy Shore Farms owners Ken Wall and his son Marc are confidently participating in a pilot with El Salvador in summer 2024.


There are two elements that really excite me about participating with the El Salvador Pilot,” says Ken Wall. “First, historically we have sourced workers from only two regions: the Caribbean and Mexico. We have found that over the years, and especially during COVID, there has been an increased administrative strain in both of these regions. By adding additional regions to source workers from, we are increasing the diversity of our community, and ensuring a sustainable workforce in years to come.”


 “The second element I am extremely excited about is the level of engagement and hands-on support we are receiving from the El Salvadorian Government. They have created some incredible programs designed to support the workers both before and after their arrival here in Canada. The El Salvadorian Government is committed to make this pilot a success, and we are grateful for their support.”


Doughty visited El Salvador in March 2024 to learn more about the country and the government’s program. While there, she provided a slide show to the 10 selected workers on what to expect at Sandy Shores. They gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up to the annual Norfolk Soccer Tournament.


It’s pilots like these that encourage Bill George, chair of the labour section, Ontario Fruit & Vegetable Growers’ Association. Members have voiced their needs for more hands on deck as the horticultural sector grows.


“COVID gave us a wake-up call,” says George, “that our source countries might not send international workers. So we’re reaching out to embassies and consulates to gauge their interest. El Salvador has proven to be a good fit.”


In fact, El Salvador’s minister of labour visited leaders of the Ontario horticultural sector in summer 2023 and held on-farm meetings with prospective employers.


“We would like Ontario to become the leading destination for international workers,” said George, pointing to the labour committee’s efforts to share best HR practices.


For her part, Amanda Doughty is pioneering a new path on how to welcome and support temporary foreign workers. Out of that respect for diversity, she’s currently learning to speak Spanish with Pancho Chanquin as her coach. A Spanglish-speaking office? Buenos dias is how they start the day.


Amanda Doughty

The Grower is Digging Deeper behind the story above and speaking with Amanda Doughty, human resource manager at Sandy Shore Farms. Amanda shares how the two-month asparagus season is intense, but she and her team, including a Spanish-speaking Guatemalan HR assistant, do everything possible to smooth communications and improve productivity in the field.  LISTEN HERE >>



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Submitted by Karen Davidson on 27 May 2024