“When are your workers out of quarantine and in the field?” Unimagined just two months ago, it’s become the most pertinent question this topsy-turvy spring. And it’s the bizarre reality facing growers lucky enough to be allocated workers arriving on chartered planes from Jamaica or Mexico in the new world order of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Schuyler Farms near Simcoe, Ontario is one of many coping with these turbulent times. Two brothers Drew and Marshall Schuyler, along with Marshall’s sons Brett and Ryan, now manage 790 acres of sour cherries and 969 acres of apples.
Nine of their essential temporary foreign workers had arrived before the federal travel ban was issued. On April 3 they were very fortunate to receive another 26 workers from Jamaica. These additional workers have emerged from 14 days of self-isolation under some of the most stringent quarantine rules in the country, as has been decreed by the Haldimand-Norfolk Public Health Unit. The controversy? Regardless of bunkhouse size, only three people are allowed.
“Most of our workers have historically come from Trinidad,” explains Ryan Schuyler. “The country is in total lockdown, but right now we have one worker sitting on his front porch in Trinidad, sitting on his suitcase waiting for permission to come.”
Never before has so much been at stake for the entire food chain. The closures of protein packing plants across Canada – chicken, pork and beef - in mid-to-late April are a cautionary tale. Distancing measures and personal protective equipment (PPE) will be the order of the day for fruit and vegetable packing lines this summer.
“Availability of PPE to the industry’s packing sheds is an issue we’ve already brought forward to the Prime Minister’s office in early April,” says Jane Proctor, vice-president, policy and issues management, Canadian Produce Marketing Association (CPMA). As the crisis stretches into the months ahead, health safety needs will require cleaning and sanitizing chemicals to maintain good agricultural practices, hand-sanitizing materials, and harvest crew PPE such as gloves and face coverings.
To be clear, the industry’s needs are not for medical-grade equipment. To meet the requirements from fields to packing sheds, from processing facilities through logistics to retail, the volumes will be more than considerable. This need, according to Shannon Sommerauer, director, government relations, CPMA is driving discussions with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Their long-term forecast is for the period until a vaccine is available which could be 18 months or more.
The loss of opportunity for face-to-face engagement with customers is the biggest challenge for Steve Bamford, CEO, Fresh Advancements. The company is an importer and wholesaler of fresh produce at the Ontario Food Terminal, providing conventional and organic produce, including, celery, citrus, apples, cherries and assorted berries.
Operating from the Ontario Food Terminal, where buyers must remain at their vehicles at all times, Bamford says, “The social distancing requirements have been the most trying circumstance for us.”
“As you know, the terminal is a very socially interactive place. Each buyer has unique needs for what works for them. It’s one thing to take a photo of a mango, but that still doesn’t portray the taste or texture. Feel and smell are hard to convey in a picture. And these qualities vary by variety.”
Fresh Advancements has lost 35 to 40 per cent of its business with the closure of foodservice channels such as restaurants. With the Ontario government extending its state of emergency to post-Victoria Day weekend, Bamford is not hopeful of a quick return to normal.
“I don’t know what life will be like post COVID-19, but until there is more testing and contact traceback, I don’t see a quick reopening of restaurants or arenas.”
As a purveyor of exotic specialty produce, Bamford also points to the negative impact of lost supply lines from South America, Spain and Italy due to lack of airline cargo space.
Regarding the United States, trucked supplies have been adequate, but as Sommerauer observes, “American marine ports are beginning to experience significant backlogs in processing containers that carry essential goods.” This situation creates a shortage of available containers for ongoing shipments. At the moment, Canada’s ports are not facing these backlogs, but agriculture’s advice to government is to look ahead to ensure continued access.
During the first six weeks under provincial states of emergency, industry leaders have had heads down, managing through the COVID-19 crisis. But now is the time to look toward sunflower days by leaning into the summer solstice and planning for the recovery.
Sommerauer is liaising with various government offices on what will be needed for future success. One area is flexibility on labeling requirements. She explains that national and international markets are struggling to understand food availability in both the short and long term.
“Labelling is one area which is inconsistent between countries and where a temporary relaxation of these requirements could remove potential technical barriers to the trade of food between countries,” she says. “We are looking for some guidance on relaxing rules for bilingual labeling, units of measure and the nutrition fact table, for example. These are items that will not impact consumer health and safety.”
Perhaps of greatest concern to food supplies is the free movement of trade between Canada and the United States. The closure of ports of entry to only essential services is extended until May 20. Along with the Canadian Society of Customs Brokers (CSCB) and other stakeholders, CPMA has successfully advocated for the deferral of payments for customs duties and taxes owed by importers, which are now due June 30.
“We have now turned our attention to working with CSCB to argue for the mitigation of financial liability for customs brokers,” says Sommerauer. “This hasn’t been resolved yet.”
The CPMA has also advocated for flexibility and harmonization between provinces regarding weight restrictions for trucks. The lack of alignment between provincial spring weight restrictions on highways during the spring thaw from February to May increases the costs of moving product interprovincially. Quebec has been one example of relaxing its laws. But it’s still a patchwork quilt of regulations across the country.
The ‘new normal’ is not without friction. It’s a kaleidoscope, shards of shifting glass that has everyone pausing at times to wonder what day of the week it is. In the midst of COVID’s changing landscape only three days seem to be constant: yesterday, today and tomorrow.