When I was a kid, my uncle grew tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers on his farm near what was known at the time as Big Point (now Grande Pointe).
I had lots of seasonal field work nearby, hoeing beans and sugar beets. But I longed for the more lucrative job of picking fruit and vegetables.
However, my uncle wouldn’t hire me. He preferred instead to go with seasonal workers. He explained that they came here as families and worked through the growing season to support other family members who were still back home.
So, the more work they got when they arrived, the more money they earned, and the happier they were.
What he was softly trying to tell me was that they were very reliable.
And me…well, not so much.
I was hardly a teenager at the time, and at the drop of a hat I’d race off on my bike to go swimming in Mitchell’s Bay or hang out with my friends. Earning money was fine, but at the time, it was tough on the social life.
Later, I’d come to realize my uncle was bang on. I was an early example of the labour challenges facing producers.
Even though I was part of his extended family, the truth is that he probably couldn’t count on me. In fact, he had six kids of his own, and they still couldn’t get the job done. He needed more help, just like producers today who can’t count wholly on Ontarians to do farm work. Seasonal work on which a farm’s livelihood depends is often a job for professionals.
Remembering that life lesson, I was happy for the farming community that despite the COVID-19 pandemic, seasonal temporary labourers would still be allowed to come to Canada, as long as they engaged in a 14-day quarantine. Ottawa heard loud and clear the wishes of the farm sector and sent a message that it recognized these workers are necessary and highly valued.
Things got even better when the federal government followed up its commitment with $50 million to help the sector implement safety measures required to adhere to the mandatory isolation period.
Some members of the public balked at this support. Spend the money on trying to recruit Canadians to do these jobs, they said – especially now. Those who once scorned farm work might see it differently if money is tight at home, so the thinking goes.
And maybe they’re right to some extent. But will that commitment last? And what happens if it doesn’t? Interrupting a well-oiled and accepted value chain that is key to putting food on our plates is chancy. But I don’t think people understand what seasonal workers bring to the agri-food system.
A culture change is needed, and this would be an ideal time to turn up the jets. Some superb videos were made last year by the Canadian Horticultural Council about seasonal workers, featuring employers and workers. At the very least, they need to see the light of day again; I suspect interest in them has grown significantly now that international workers, as they’re called in the video series, are in the spotlight.
But if they must be labelled, let’s drop the words foreign, migrant, international and even temporary to describe them.
Yes, they’re all that. But really, they’re professional. Maybe not in the classic sense, like a degree-holding professional or a well-paid pro athlete, but there’s no doubt they’re among the best at what they do.
Considering them professionals might help society treat them with a little higher regard, too.
Professionals have a valued specialization. And heading into this planting season, we came to realize just how much the agri-food sector values and needs these professionals’ skills.