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On Canada’s farms, the cost of all the work that can’t be done because there are no workers to do it is spinning out of control

Farmers around Carman, Man., know the small convenience store in the town called the Lite Stop Foods. They know they’ll find what they want there — a few groceries, the local newspaper, a snack to tide them over.

It also happens to be where Murray Froebe found two very good employees for his farm.

Froebe is owner of Agassiz Seed Farms Ltd., an hour southwest of Winnipeg, and he had dropped in one day, chatting with the store’s new owners, Kamal Sundu and Amolak Singh. They had recently immigrated from India, bought the business, and moved their families to Carman.

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Hearing that Froebe was a farmer, Sundu revealed he had studied agriculture himself while still in the Punjab. In the end he’d pursued a different line of work but he told Froebe he’d retained his keen interest in farming.

Froebe invited him to visit the farm and to see the farm crew harvesting a field near Carman. Kamal not only came, but brought his wife and father too.

“It was a beautiful August afternoon, and we were harvesting oats,” recalls Froebe. Everyone took a turn riding on the combine and Kamal drove, comparing the modern combine to the types that he drove in India. One of the farm’s staff invited Sundu’s father to join him in the grain truck for a ride to the elevator.

The afternoon sparked a friendship between this third-generation farm owner and the Punjabi family, and not long afterward, another of Singh’s family came knocking. He was Gurpreet Singh, Amolak’s nephew, then a landed immigrant. He was working at the Lite Stop at the time, but he was looking for another job.

Froebe hired him immediately, even with no farm experience, and the training began as a general worker in the farmyard.

“He has a phys. ed degree, but he wanted a job so he could be close to his family,” Froebe says. Gurpreet learned fast and worked hard at the general farm labourer job that Froebe had hired him for, and he continues to work hard at it. Seven years later, he’s still working for Agassiz Seed Farm.

For Tapinder and Gurpreet Singh, jobs at Agassiz Seed Farm give them stability and help them not only establish their families in rural Canada but become a part of the local community.
photo: Sandy Black

Next, Froebe has recently hired another of Singh’s nephews, Tapinder Singh, although this time it was more complicated.

Tapinder does have agricultural experience, plus he’s a trained mechanic. But hiring him took more than a handshake. Tapinder was in Canada on a visitor’s visa when they first met, so Froebe needed first to meet all the requirements of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) and prove he would not be displacing a Canadian worker by hiring him.

Core truths about farm hiring

Farmers across the country would be equally impressed by Froebe’s foresight and by his good fortune. On their home farms, it’s getting harder and harder to find their next employee.

No matter what sector you’re in, from B.C. flower farms to potato growers in the Maritimes, and on practically every beef, grain or dairy farm in between, it’s a rare day when someone shows up asking for a job on the farm anymore.

In a friendly conversation at a nearby variety store, Murray Froebe discovered the clerk in his variety store had farm experience in Punjab.
photo: Sandy Black

The acute farm labour shortage and the associated business risk it poses to agricultural producers across Canada has been most clearly depicted in research conducted by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC).

According to new CAHRC numbers, Canada’s farmers have 59,000 more jobs waiting to be filled than there are domestic workers to fill them.

At seven per cent, that gives primary agriculture the distinction of having the highest sectoral job vacancy rate in the country.

Jobs unfilled cost the industry and the Canadian economy big time, too, estimated to cause annual losses of $1.5 billion in farm cash receipts, or three per cent of the industry’s total value in sales.

The research also forecasts worse days ahead, with a Canadian agri-workforce shortfall by 2025 of 114,000 jobs.

New research will update that forecast through to 2029, and farmers need to brace themselves. That 114,000 shortfall may seem small in comparison. And while no two commodity areas have exactly the same need, all face significant labour challenges right now, with little relief in sight.

The livestock sector has been adopting technology including robotic milking and automated feeding systems to reduce their dependence on workers they can’t hire. Still, the dairy sector had 3,400 unfilled jobs even by 2014, and beef 3,500.

The news isn’t any better for the grain and oilseed sector. In fact, it’s worse. The 2014 work by CAHRC showed a full one-third of grain-farm employees are expected to retire in a decade. So although the grain sector has posted the strongest increases in productivity and labour force growth, its labour gap is still predicted to triple by 2025, with 17,400 unfilled jobs.

It’s going to cost big. Sales from work that could not be done on grain farms in 2014 because farmers couldn’t find employees cost the sector $569 million — the largest financial loss of any sector in Canadian ag.

And then there’s the country’s fruit and vegetable farmers who can’t get their crops off without plenty of human hands for the job.

Not many of those hands show up anymore when farmers put word out that they’re hiring. As a result, horticulture relies heavily on foreign labour. In 2014, a full third of its workforce was foreign at the seasonal peak. Even so, the industry saw 1,100 jobs go unfilled at a cost of $240 million.

It’s a scenario that’s frustrating many farm expansion plans, and it’s also adding to the stress and fatigue caused by already long hours on today’s farms.

The technology is different and so are the crops, but the keys to job success are the same, For Tapinder and Gurpreet Singh, family is a big part of the equation.
photo: Sandy Black

Why not a farm job?

Why do so few want a job on the farm? It turns out this too is well documented.

Many positions, though not all, are seasonal, and a half year’s work doesn’t put bread on the table or pay the bills for most.

Plus, there are the logistics. Fewer people live where the agricultural jobs are. The proportion of Canadians living in rural Canada has dropped to fewer than one in five, and Canada’s rural population now ranks the third lowest among all G8 countries, followed by the United Kingdom and the United States.

Rural Saskatchewan really tells the tale, with a population that has flipped from mostly rural to mostly urban with a population density of just 1.8 people per square km.

A sparse countryside makes chances of finding someone to work for them next to nil, says grains and oilseed producer Kenton Possberg. He needs about a dozen seasonal staff every crop year to work on his 13,000-acre farm near Humboldt.

Finding them gets tougher every year. People living around him are either farming themselves, or employed in other jobs and don’t want a seasonal job, Possberg says. Plus, he needs people who have some experience operating farm machinery, which is becoming a rarer skill set.

“We’d normally fill these seasonal positions with people that have retired, but those people are not as accessible any more,” Poss­berg says.

“When someone retires now they’re usually out of farming. It’s just with the value of what farms are. If they’re exiting the business, they’re exiting completely and they don’t want to be working these hours anymore.”

Possberg now sets to work every fall, whether harvest is done or not, advertising for the following spring. He’s also doing paperwork for hiring temporary foreign workers months in advance, too.

“It just allows us to be confident in making longer-term business decisions, that at least the labour component is a box that we can check if we’re not able to find Canadian citizens.”

That fall paperwork includes filling out Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) documentation showing Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), i.e. the federal department that assesses these applications, that he couldn’t find any Canadians wanting the job.

Possberg has been hiring temporary foreign workers for several years to meet his own farm’s labour shortage.

But he’s become increasingly concerned with the Temporary Foreign Worker program as it relates to agriculture.

He’s familiar with the “streams” for accessing agricultural workers through the program, and which ones his farm qualifies for, but it’s clear to him why others are reluctant. “It’s not a very user-friendly program,” he says.

“You have the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, and then you have the Agricultural stream program and then there’s the low wage and high wage stream,” he says.

“There’s four different groups that are possible for agriculture and it’s just confusing for producers,” he says. He says EDSC staff are evidently baffled by it all too, judging by contradictory advice he’s been given.

“I just feel there’s a need for a specific agricultural program that combines everything,” he says. “That would be a better way for everybody.”

He’s by no means the only one who thinks so.

The Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food Workforce Action Plan, which lists a series of recommendations to address the ag labour crisis, calls for streamlining existing systems and processes within the Temporary Foreign Worker Program as a shorter-term solution — and for creation of a more dedicated program to specifically match immigration to agriculture’s needs as a more permanent solution.

That plan also calls for making it easier for those who come to Canada to become permanent residents.

The need for changes were also highlighted in the 2018 report “Canada’s Economic Strategy Table: Agri-Food,” which acknowledges the cumbersome processes farmers experience with the TFW program.

That report called for immediate changes to “modernize” Canada’s immigration and temporary foreign worker program, noting that “despite nearly 64,000 TFW positions approved in 2017… reliable access is an ongoing source of frustration for industry.”

Meanwhile, last spring the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) held talks with federal officials on how to improve service delivery.

One of the recommendations was for more employer education to make the TFW program easier to understand because incorrect or missing information on applications can lead to rejected applications and delays.

An ongoing concern for producers is the whole process time lag, says Mary Robinson, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.

“I think people generally find the system is not time sensitive,” she says. It can take months to process applications, leaving producers in a state of uncertainty, not knowing if they’ll meet their labour needs, she says.

“When you’re trying to make plans and forecasts for how many workers you’re going to need, if you’ve got to do it that many months out, that takes a lot of really good planning,” said Robinson.“And we know things can change.”

As a contributing partner to the Workforce Action Plan alongside CARCH, the CFA supports creation of that dedicated Canadian agriculture and agri-food workforce program to provide consistent and efficient access to international agriculture workers, she said.

Meanwhile, a new initiative that got underway across the country this spring aims to help more farmers become familiar with the current foreign worker program.

This is the nine-month program, Quality AgriWorkforce Management Program: International Phase (QAMP) funded by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and intended as a support to employers looking to hire international workers to supplement their Canadian workforce.

CAHRC staff were chosen to lead this project and have begun offering workshops across the country and developing employer guides for its website’s AgriHRtool kit.

This project recognizes the difficulties producers experience, says Janet Krayden, program manager with CAHRC.

The aim is to clarify the rules of the program to ensure compliance, and to share best practices for both recruiting and hiring international workers. “It is a program that’s quickly evolving,” Krayden says.  “They’re having a lot of challenges in getting successful applications through. ”

As well, two new pilot programs, announced just a few months apart, aim to match immigration to the needs of agricultural employers and rural Canada.

One is the new Agri-Food Immigration Program, announced in the March 2019 federal budget to help more non-seasonal foreign agri-food workers go from the temporary foreign worker program to permanent residency instead of having to continuously renew their work permits.

The Canadian Meat Council (CMC) has been calling for this for years to tackle the meat processing industry’s own specific issues with the TFW program, and its own chronic shortage of meat cutters.

“This pilot is vital to our sector. Our members provide year-round, permanent jobs. There’s nothing temporary about meat processing’s workforce requirements” says Chris White, CMC president.

The new Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot, meanwhile, will link regional economic development groups, rural communities and prospective employers to attract immigrants and proactively create welcoming environments where people will want to settle and stay.

All these initiatives are definitely steps in the right direction, says Robinson.

“It is certainly our hope that once these pilots are executed, and lessons learned from them, we will see a more dedicated and concentrated approach to addressing employment within agriculture,” she says.

We need to propose a different label than “temporary foreign worker,” she agrees.

Research has shown that for every international worker hired, two to four full-time Canadian agriculture-related jobs are created up and down agri-food supply chains.

“These international workers who come here and help us get our work done are a huge benefit to us,” says Robinson. “And when I say ‘us’, I mean our entire Canadian economy.”

The revitalization in the small town of Neepawa, Man., as a result of expanding a pork processing facility there, and hiring hundreds of temporary foreign workers who’ve since became permanent residents here, tells that tale.

HyLife, a Manitoba-based integrated farm-to-fork pork processor, bought a slaughter plant in Neepawa in 2008. Today the meat plant employs 1,600 with approximately 1,000 of those recruited from outside Canada, mostly from the Philippines.

The town of Neepawa has grown by over 1,200 people with hundreds of new families, thanks to the combined efforts of the company working with the local municipality and other community partners to help these workers settle here permanently.

The company and Neepawa were jointly recognized by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in 2017 for exemplary efforts to recruit and retain an immigrant workforce.

The Canadian Meat Council has documented how across the country 15 meat cutting plants have supported settlement for over 3,790 temporary foreign workers in rural areas across Canada. Its report notes that meat cutters transitioning to permanency through the program stay at rural abattoirs on average 10 years and many much longer than that.

The Canadian Horticultural Council (CHC), meanwhile, has released a 34-minute video, called Heartbeat — A Celebration of International Farm Workers, featuring interviews with international farm workers and the farmers who hire them.

Workers talk about their work and what a difference Canadian employment made in their lives, enabling them to build houses for their families and send children to school.

Farm employers talk about the value of their employment and relationship to them.

The key message is that the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program fosters a mutually beneficial relationship between employers and their employees, says Beth Connery, labour chair with the Canadian Horticultural Council’s board of directors and a fruit and vegetable farm owner in Manitoba. “This is a partnership between the growers and the employees who come to Canada to work with us,” she says.

“Without them we could not produce the crops that we do.”

About the author

Field editor

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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