Canadian food system is up to the test

Willy Green is grounded in Jamaica. But he and hundreds more from the Caribbean and Mexico are needed desperately to harvest asparagus, one of the first fresh crops to come to market in Ontario. 


“At the moment, I have no workers,” says Rebecca Compton, chair of the Asparagus Farmers of Ontario.  “I need 42 people through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.”


Compton spoke to The Grower on March 18 at a time of unprecedented crisis caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic. The federal government had just suspended the expected arrival of workers from the Caribbean and Mexico, and the American and Canadian governments announced closure of the border to all but traffic “deemed to be essential.”


On the same day, the U.S. embassy suspended processing of all new applications for the H-2A guest worker program in Mexico. Only returning seasonal workers will be allowed to enter the United States.


“When the process is stopped midstream, it likely means those crews won’t be there exactly when they’re needed, if they get there at all,” Dave Puglia, president of the Western Growers’ Association told Reuters news service. “That means lost crops. That means lost food.” He speaks for fruit and vegetable growers in states including California and Arizona.


Reacting to the breaking news, Compton reiterated the importance of domestic food supplies. 


“In a fluid situation like this, we can’t be on the frontline in hospitals,” said Compton. “But as farmers we can provide food, the essentials to life. May is a crucial month and the planting season is quite narrow. We need to think of food production for the next six months to a year. The Canadian food system can feed Canadians.”


Horticultural commodity groups across Canada are united in their need for access to seasonal workers to ensure the Canadian food system is robust and secure. Nationally, 60,000 seasonal workers are needed for pruning, planting and harvesting. These are ‘seasoned’ hands, with skills for production practices in a range of crops from berries, apples and grapes to tender fruit, field and greenhouse vegetables. Hard-working men and women who have been returning to Canada each season for years are committed, dexterous, and adaptable to Canadian weather conditions. 


Bill George, chair of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, and provincial agriculture minister Ernie Hardeman have been working, along with other provincial cohorts to make the case to the federal agriculture minister. 


“It is the OFVGA’s goal to partner with government to help maintain a secure food supply for Canadians while at the same time protecting the health ofCanadian citizens and workers,” says George. 


Tom Heeman, chair of the Berry Growers of Ontario, wrote federal ag minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, pleading the case for agricultural workers. “The loss of these essential employees would result in crop losses here in Ontario as well as across the country,” he said. “In the absence of a reliable work force we would face a cropping disaster…We are very willing to take appropriate measures to make sure the workers we bring to Canada go through appropriate screening and quarantines if necessary…  We understand the Canada/U.S. border is being kept open for trade and commerce and we believe that the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program falls within this criteria.”


Listening to the chorus of agricultural voices calling out for immediate access to workers, mainstream media have been interviewing farmers such as Ken Forth, president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS) and a broccoli grower from Lynden, Ontario.   


“We had four more planes scheduled for this week, but now they aren’t coming,” Forth told the Financial Poston March 18. “Broccoli has to be hand cut. I need an army of people to do that. From now until mid-August I’m planting and harvesting because our retailers want a constant supply.”


FARMS has the capacity to charter planes but to date have been prevented from doing so.  Although charter planes are rarely used in British Columbia, said Reg Ens, executive director of the BC Agriculture Council, he is currently fielding calls from farmers worried about the loss of more than three-quarters of the 8,000 seasonal workers they need. 


The arrival of workers on commercial flights has diminished to a trickle. “Two workers arrived from Guatemala earlier in the week, but two commercial flights out of Mexico were cancelled for today,” Ens reported.


The BC Agriculture Council is working with other provinces such as Quebec on protocols that would allow seasonal workers to arrive without compromising the health of Canadians. These details include testing before leaving home countries, establishing protocols to create social distancing within a “work camp” environment, assistance in setting up direct payment deposit and grocery delivery services, and supporting workers with essentials on arrival. 


“Food security is an important issue for the prime minister,” said Ens. “We need to make sure that the public health officials feel comfortable with our proposals.”


Calls for the federal government to allow the return of seasonal agricultural workers became louder with the March 18 news release by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA). “We urge the federal government to take great care and deliberation when making decisions that will immediately and significantly impact our food supply and food security,” wrote Keith Currie, president, OFA.  “Food security is key for all Canadians and we depend on a stable, affordable and safe food supply, year-round. The continuous production and distribution of food products through our supply chain networks are even more critical in a crisis situation such as the one we are currently facing today.”  


Currie explained that the farm produce and food processing sectors face unique challenges in attracting and retaining a local workforce. Ontario alone had been expecting approximately 20,000 workers to arrive in coming weeks to assist with spring preparation and planting and to processing plants. These key individuals are critical to the 2020 production year. 


Fortunately, more chapters of this story have yet to be written. At press time, deliberations between agricultural stakeholders across Canada and the federal and provincial governments continue into the small hours of the night. It’s hard to imagine that shining a light on seasonal agricultural workers, a little understood but critical aspect of food production, will not result in a made-in-Canada solution. 


Karen Davidson, editor of The Grower, goes 'Behind the Scenes' of this story and speaks with Ron Lemaire, president of CPMA. Click to listen.

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Monday, March 23, 2020

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