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Horticultural industry bowed, not broken by COVID-19

Industry needs to examine where it sources labour, both domestically and internationally, says chair of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association

Despite extraordinarily difficult issues during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bill George is optimistic about the future of the Canadian horticultural sector.

“I’m very proud of how producers have risen to the challenges,” he says. “They always will find a way to get things done.” George is the chair of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (OFVGA) and is on the board of directors for the Canadian Horticultural Council.

The sector was especially hard hit because of its reliance on temporary foreign workers. George says that when the travel ban was put in place in March, they didn’t know if even 15 per cent of the work force would make it into the country. Across Canada, about 55,000 foreign workers made up 20 per cent of the agricultural work force in 2018.

COVID-19 woes

Bill George.
photo: Supplied

“The week after the travel ban was announced is normally the busiest travel week for workers,” George says. Some of his members were expecting 40 to 50 people, but at that point, they didn’t know if they would have any.

They were able to work through that problem, and had to ensure everyone followed the two-week quarantine once the employees landed on farms.

“By the time a lot of these operations got their workers, they were five to six weeks behind,” he says.

The OFVGA, which has a membership of 3,500 horticultural producers, has been actively involved with government and public health authorities to develop protocols, ensure producers know and follow protective procedures, and encourage workers to get COVID-19 testing. They also recommended that growers create separate teams of workers: those who live on the farms and those who don’t.

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The death of three foreign workers due to the virus was a devastating blow. In July, the organization issued a letter to Ontarians which underscored the importance of the decades-old seasonal agricultural worker program and how ensuring the health and safety of employees is essential to being able to continue supplying fruits and vegetables.

Operational changes

“A lot of adjustments had to be made to keep workers safe, and the industry really stepped up by retrofitting equipment and packing houses, putting in protocols and ensuring housing capacity is at 60 to 70 per cent to allow for social distancing,” George says.

George has between 10 and 15 full-time staff, including six foreign workers, on his 160-acre vineyard, depending on the time of year. It’s highly mechanized, and he says that if he were still in the tender fruit business, he’d need 60 to 70 workers for a farm that size.

Other adjustments that growers were making included reducing the size of their crops, or switching to grain crops to shrink the need for labour.

“We were concerned — and the government was concerned — that growers might just take the year off and not plant at all, but that didn’t happen,” he says. “Growers realize that growing produce is an essential service for the province and the country.”

Labour shortages were a serious issue before the pandemic hit and George says he doesn’t know anyone who had a full complement of workers as a result of it.

There were serious concerns about the fall harvest — especially from apple growers — who were very worried about getting paperwork done from countries like Mexico, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago that send workers north.

“Everybody is stilling feeling the pinch,” he says, adding that the problems are not just in Canada, but in other countries, and how they’re dealing with the pandemic.

While getting applications processed wasn’t an issue here in Canada, government support overall at the beginning of the summer was lacking, according to George.

“We feel that our government could do more — we want to know that horticulture will have the same backstops as other industries,” he says, noting that getting changes to the AgriStability program so that it actually works for farmers would be one way for the government to show its support.

“Growers need to be assured that they can plant and grow crops without going bankrupt,” he says. The OFVGA — like many other agricultural organizations —is pushing hard to get coverage levels increased and make the program less complicated.

Government funds flowing

An announcement in mid-July by Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the province’s agriculture minister Ernie Hardeman saw an extra $50 million injected into Ontario’s Risk Management program, which includes a self-directed risk management component for edible horticulture growers.

In late July, the federal government announced $58.6 million in funding for the Temporary Foreign Workers’ Program to better prevent and deal with COVID-19 on farms. The money was split into $7.4 million to increase supports to foreign workers, including funding for migrant worker organizations; $16.2 to bolster employer inspection regimes and $35 million for improving living quarters, PPE (personal protective equipment), hand sanitizing stations and other health and safety measures. The contributions are non-repayable and are cost-shared 50:50 with applicants.

“It’s encouraging to see the funds being made available to offset growers’ costs due to COVID-19,” George says. “How the funds will be distributed will be the main thing.”

Looking to the future

George became cautiously optimistic about the 2020 harvest, as long as an adequate number of workers could be brought in.

Growers were also recruiting from laid-off people locally, and doing everything they could to get the produce to consumer tables.

“It’s challenging to get local labour, and people drawing on the CERB could be a factor in that,” he says. CERB is the federal government’s emergency response benefit that provides financial support to employees who are affected by the pandemic.

Looking further into the future, George says that the OFVGA has struck a committee to look into what needs to change.

The COVID-19 working group, headed by OFVGA vice-chair and apple grower Charles Stevens, will help develop a plan for next year. Its members represent a cross section of commodities and regions.

“We need solid recommendations that we’ll hopefully get in the fall,” George says.

In general, he says that the industry needs to examine where it sources labour — domestically and internationally.

“A concern of mine is that if the countries from which we source workers can’t get the pandemic under control, we wouldn’t be able to get the workers,” he says.

He says that there must be some fresh thinking into labour, including more use of labour-saving technology.

George’s own operation is highly mechanized so there’s little need for manual labour.

But that’s not the situation with many of his members.

“I’m sure there will be a lot of learning from this experience — which is the case for everyone,” George says. “Keeping people healthy is the main thing.”

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