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Diverse, and profitable

Saskatchewan’s Prairie Berries has figured out how a diverse and inclusive workplace can help it achieve growth targets that otherwise just couldn’t happen

There’s a story that gets told about what it’s like to work an agricultural job in Canada. In this case, though, the story isn’t told in English or French.

Those telling it speak Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Arabic and other languages. They are among the thousands of newcomers in Canada as Temporary Foreign Workers on contracts, or they are immigrants or refugees, working what are often their first jobs in this country on Canada’s farms or in its processing sector.

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Their stories include how they are treated in their workplaces, on the farm and in the food plant.

How do you suppose that story goes?

What they say matters to their employers. Or, at least, it should, based on a look at future hiring trends in the sector. Thousands of our farms desperately need employees, and thousands more — large and small — will join them soon.

Meanwhile, at least many immigrants in Canada are chronically underemployed, with skills and capabilities they’re yearning to put to work.

Yet as an industry, agriculture must be among the least culturally diverse in the country, especially on the farm.

Does it matter? In an increasingly multicultural, urban Canada, is it okay that agriculture is so far outside the loop?

The easy response has always been that immigrants don’t know how to farm. Now, though, it’s clear that farming is exactly what large numbers of immigrants do have a taste of, having grown up on farms and in agriculture in their home countries. It may not be Canadian agriculture, but then, the ancestors of today’s Canadian farmers didn’t exactly know how to farm here either.

If it’s important to look at hiring international workers, however, it’s important too to create the right conditions where they would work. But that’s another question. How do you create a respectful and inclusive work environment on the farm?

As always, one way may be to look at success stories in the sector.

Near the tiny town of Keeler, Sask., Josue (pronounced “hoe-sway”) Salgado and Sandy Purdy are an employee-employer duo who tell a story of creating just such a workplace.

Salgado has worked at Prairie Berries Inc., a saskatoon berry orchard and processing plant outside Moose Jaw since 2008. He came to Canada from Nicaragua that year, then just 24 years old, to work as a Temporary Foreign Worker in the orchard as a labourer.

It was all new to him — the job, the language, the climate, the culture. Not only was he young, but what he’d arrived to do, which was to work as an outdoor field harvester, was very different from his life back home, where he’d worked as a graphic designer in his family’s clothing manufacturing company.

He also barely spoke English, except for the phrase “thank you.”

Sandy Purdy, co-owner of Prairie Berries Inc., didn’t just hire Salgado and put him to work. She took him under her wing. “He was eager to learn and I was eager to provide opportunity to grow him as an individual.”

Without international workers, Prairie Berries faced an uncertain future.
photo: Dave Stobbe

Purdy is the company’s chief operating officer. She founded the company with her husband Ken in 1993 when the couple decided to start producing something besides grain to keep their farm viable.

Purdy had worked off-farm for several years at Sasktel in various departments, so she knew a thing or two about business, including managing human resources. And she also knew that great businesses get built by great teams. Good people aren’t just nice to have, they’re essential.

Salgado was among her first international hires. She spotted that he was a hard worker and fast learner, so she began sitting down with him daily to coach him through one-on-one English lessons. And once he had a good grasp of the language, she began training him for the assistant office manager job he holds today. More recently, he’s been promoted to food safety manager.

“Since I came to this company I always had the big gate open for me,” says Salgado.

“The main thing that I needed was the language. My managers, Sandy and Ken, they opened the door for me. I moved to the office in 2012 to help Sandy with accounting. She was teaching me how to do all of those things so she’d have help in the office.”

Today, Salgado is one of 14 foreign full-time and seasonal workers at Prairie Berries. Several have been here at least a decade, with five gaining landed immigrant status since arriving, and all being promoted within the company. Prairie Berries also has five Canadian workers who make up the complement of their 19 staff in total. The company’s staff is highly culturally diverse, with other countries of origin including Turkey, Sudan and Nigeria.

Labour shortage

Hiring from outside the country wasn’t initially in the plan when they were starting this company, says Purdy. In the early years they’d hire local youth living on the farms and in the surrounding towns looking for summer jobs to help them with the saskatoon harvest. Family members did the rest of the processing work the remainder of the year.

But times were changing in rural Saskatchewan and the local population around Keeler steadily diminished through the 1990s and 2000s.Those young people moved away. Schools closed. At one point, there were just two schools within a 100 km radius of the community, which also meant fewer kids were looking for summer jobs. They were down to just two being available to work one summer, compared to only a few years earlier when there’d been over a dozen, says Purdy.

“That’s when I started to ask, ‘How do we run this operation in rural Saskatchewan with no summer help to get us through our season?’ If we did not have labour to work in the orchards the business would have failed.”

Having no experience with hiring from outside Canada, they turned to their provincial and federal governments for assistance navigating the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which allows Canadian employers to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary labour and skill shortages when no Canadian citizens nor permanent residents are available. Their first employees began to arrive in 2008.

Fast-forward to today, and Prairie Berries Inc. is now the country’s leading saskatoon berry grower and processor, an enterprise that includes a 160-acre orchard and a processing plant manufacturing several value-added product ingredients including frozen berries, purees, concentrates, freeze- dried powders, pie fillings and sweetened dried berries, plus an array of retail products such as syrups and spreads.

There’s a very popular ready-to-eat Prairie Berries pie made here, too. It’s the handiwork of their Nicaraguan-born baker Reyna Garcia. She started work here in 2012 as a Temporary Foreign Worker, too, after coming to Canada to joining her husband Melvin Sequeira who was already working there. When Reyna and her daughters first arrived in Canada, they lived on the family farm with the Purdys. Today, the family live in Moose Jaw. Melvin and his three daughters are now Canadian citizens while Reyna works on improving her English skills to the level required to apply for citizenship. Melvin has been promoted to operations manager at Prairie Berries.

The buddy system

Prairie Berries’ executive assistant Josiah Faji, soon to be a permanent resident himself, spends a lot of his time to integrate a work team that speaks different languages and comes from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

He arrived in Canada from Nigeria in 2017 to study for his master’s degree in human resources management at the University of Regina. He was matched with the company as part of the co-operative education program at the university, and after his contract was complete, the Purdys offered him full-time employment.

“Which I gladly took,” says Faji, whose role encompasses managing human resources plus overseeing inventory, logistics and customer relations.

When it comes to creating an inclusive workplace, they do a lot of things at Prairie Berries right, says Faji. One is the buddy system they’ve established, whereby a new staff member is paired with someone who has been there a while. It’s essential for those who don’t speak English well when they first arrive, he says.

Prairie Berries also emphasizes face-to-face communication, and has clearly written workplace policies that are also translated into Spanish. They have a reporting procedure if employees have issues they need addressed. And they hold frequent get-togethers allowing staff to interact with each other, where, as Faji puts it “we have those good moments together.’’

“It gives us this privilege to understand each other more, our cultural values and how we can address each others needs,” he says.

Faji describes the work environment as one where everyone is assured they matter and their ideas and input are welcomed, and he describes the company’s work environment as “like a family.” There is strong emphasis on the importance of the entire team, he says.

“We have an open-door environment,” he says. “We have positions and a management team but we see ourselves as equals. We kind of fit in each other’s shoes.”

Faji credits his employers for the special effort they’ve made to ensure their work team feels they don’t just work here, but are part of that “family.” The company provides the means for permanent resident workers to travel back to their home country every Christmas to see their own families. Throughout the year, international staff are also asked to list things they’d like to see and do while in Canada, and the Purdys work out ways to give them a good experience of their time here.

“Sandy has laid down the template for people like me to work in,” says Faji. “She has a focus and a leadership design and a culture design so anyone from any country can come in and settle. I’m sure everyone from Prairie Berries would have a story to share about how they’ve been accommodated.”

Prairie Berries’ story is an example of a farm and agri-business workplace made both diverse and inclusive, not just by hiring newcomers, but by deliberate effort to respect different perspectives and to ensure all workers are included in social and work-related activities.

It’s an act to follow for other agricultural employers who are also beginning to hire more international workers.

More are doing so than ever before. The number of jobs filled by persons recruited from outside Canada jumped to 60,000 in 2017 from 45,600 in 2014, according to the most recent labour market statistics released by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC).

One in every six positions in the Canadian agri-workforce is now an offshore recruit, underscoring how critically important these so-called “non-traditional sources” of labour are to ease labour market pressures, and bring new perspectives to the workforce.

There are, of course, bigger challenges hiring immigrants that can’t be addressed by agricultural employers themselves; more supports and services such as English language training and public transportation are needed, and more effort made to promote jobs and careers in agriculture and food-producing industries.

But what these employers can do is to start to recognize the inherent value of supporting workplace diversity beyond merely observing legal and policy requirements.

Managing a diverse workplace requires a set of skills that you develop like any others, says Jennifer Wright, CAHRC’s human resource educator and stakeholder engagement specialist.

“There’s been lots of focus on having a diverse workforce, not necessarily as much on what happens when you actually attract one,” she says.

As Wright points out, and as is highlighted in CAHRC’s online Agri-HR Tool kit, supporting workplace diversity involves much more than just meeting legal or policy requirements.

A diverse workplace, says Wright, is one where people not just of different languages, but different genders, religions, sexual orientations and abilities can feel respected, and valued, and inclusion is intentional on the part of employers. Of utmost importance is being aware of how you yourself behave and communicate with your workers as well as with the wider community where the company’s reputation is at stake.

“You walk the talk,” she says. “Focusing on being aware of the need to increase inclusivity in your workplace is the first step.”

Developing inclusive policies and procedures to promote workplace diversity is important because they give everyone working there a clear set of rules and expectations about what behaviours are, and are not, acceptable.

One of the common strategies is the presence of a “champion” in the business or supporting employment agency who is highly committed to the successful placement of international workers.

There’s been significant research looking at the benefits of hiring a diverse workforce, and it turns out there’s a proven link to diversity in the business and the business’s success. Deloitte, for example, has shown there is an 80 per cent improvement in business performance when levels of diversity and inclusion are high.

“You just have more innovative ways of doing things by having a diverse group of people figuring out and bringing their ideas to the table to get things done,” says Wright, adding the more often you attract and retain workers from a wider labour pool, the more attractive your enterprise becomes to an increasing pool of applicants.

CAHRC did extensive research into diversity and inclusion in the agricultural workplace for its 2016 report New Opportunities for Expanding the Agricultural Workforce — Pilot Projects with Under-Represented Groups, including 14 case studies from Canadian workplaces with innovative approaches to increasing agricultural employment not only among immigrants, but other under-represented groups in agriculture, such as Canada’s Indigenous populations, or persons with physical limitations.

CAHRC also has created a series of resources within its Agri-HR Tool Kit devoted to help farmers and other agricultural employers become diversity leaders. A helpful resource for agricultural employers to learn skills for leading and managing a diverse and inclusive workforce is at hrtoolkit.cahrc-ccrha.ca/diversity-and-inclusion/diverse-workforce/.

Back in Keeler, Sask., meanwhile, Sandy Purdy hasn’t read any manual or report on the topic. Hers was more of an instinctive approach and one founded in basic human empathy.

“I look at it from the angle of what if one of my sons were dropped into a foreign country where they didn’t know a single person, the language or the culture. How would they survive? ”

“My approach is treat them as you would want someone else treating your own sons and daughters.”

And the only real difference between a Canadian and a foreign worker is birthplace, she adds.

“We are lucky to live in Canada, the land of opportunity,” she says.

“So why not create opportunities for our foreign workers, who are ambitious and willing to learn, so they grow and have those same opportunities?”

About the author

Associate editor

Lorraine Stevenson is associate editor with Country Guide. She has also covered agriculture and rural issues since 1995 as a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator and Farmers’ Independent Weekly.

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