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The overseas employee

If we look to 2030, where will we find our farm employees?

Agriculture is already looking outside the agricultural community — and in some cases outside the country — to recruit workers. That’s only going to intensify if, as expected, rural populations stagnate or decline, and if farms consolidate and rely more on hired employees.

It’s also worth noting that 112,000 of today’s employees (37 per cent of the agricultural workforce) are set to retire in the next decade, leaving a huge gap behind them.

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There are causes for optimism, though, and it turns out that farmers in Canada may be luckier than most.

Immigration tops the list, with 350,000 immigrants expected annually over the next 10 years. Typically, of course, few immigrants end up on the farm, and based on current trends only 17,000 are expected to enter the agricultural workforce in the next decade.

However, agricultural employers surveyed by CAHRC for its recent agricultural labour market forecast to 2029 suggested agriculture will get behind a strategy to encourage recent immigrants to locate to rural communities, with tactics such as promoting employment, education, social, and recreational opportunities, not only for potential workers, but also for their families.

“It will be important to develop strong relationships with immigrant settlement agencies so that their staff understand the employment opportunities and services that are available in rural communities,” says the CAHRC report.

In fact, immigrants may also replace other non-Canadians. Temporary foreign workers have long filled the gap for seasonal employment on Canada’s farms, and producers place a high value on them. While a program like the Seasonal Agricultural Worker program (SAWP) is vital to producers, not all can access it, and many believe the commodity list on which it is based is too limited.

“Despite the success of SAWP and other foreign worker programs, our prior research has found that producers do not feel that existing permanent immigration programs, with their focus on university graduates, are well suited to the needs of agriculture,” says the CAHRC report. “As such, they may find more success in turning to recruiting recent refugees to Canada, which has noticeably increased in recent years. The ability for producers to help foreign workers transition to become permanent residents or Canadian citizens could also be helpful. However, this option is not always readily accessible as the ability to sponsor foreign workers for permanent residency varies widely province-to-province.”

Canada is one of the most highly urbanized countries in the world. It’s a process that is increasing not only here but in countries around the world and it has a profound effect on population growth, with implications for labour supply, says journalist John Ibbitson, co-author with Darrell Bricker of Empty Planet.

Urbanization is the lead reason fertility rates are crashing throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and also throughout parts of the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia, says Ibbitson.

In Empty Planet, Ibbitson explains that people who move from a rural subsistence farming economy to an urban environment tend to raise both their income and education levels. Over time, they also have fewer children, which leads to ever more prosperity for subsequent generations raised in the urban environment, and the return of sub-prime farmland back to bush, which may be good from an environmental standpoint, but with an increasingly urbanized (and declining) population around the world, eventually there will be a lot more competition for workers. So, countries around the world that are adopting or moving towards more stringent, anti-immigration policies may live to regret it in a future, labour-constrained era.

“We started out to say that every country has to be like Canada or it declines,” says Ibbitson. “That is to say, either you open your door to immigration or your population will decline, but it’s not as simple as that.”

Japan’s population was declining rapidly, but the Japanese are a culturally, linguistically and racially cohesive people and they simply cannot imagine a Japan that is multi-cultural, so they accept decline as a consequence of their decision to live in a cohesive society.

Europe is also struggling with its stance on immigration; some countries that had opened their doors are now closing them.

“Then you have the lucky few — Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand — where immigration has been there since the first days of non-Indigenous settlement, and where there is a strong culture of accepting immigrants,” says Ibbitson.

That’s great news for Canada, he says. “It means that Canada, even though it has a fertility rate every bit as low as everyone else’s, will be able to sustain and even expand its population, which will provide the young people needed to fill shortages and provide the tax base required to pay for health care and pensions.”

With continued, open immigration, Canada should be able to grow its population into the middle of the century at least, but there are two things that could go wrong. The first is a turn away from accepted immigration policies, which is starting to happen in the U.S. The second is the very real risk that there will be fewer emigrants from key regions to be attracted.

Many of Canada’s temporary foreign workers currently come from Latin America and the Caribbean and both of those areas are at the replacement rate (which is 2.1 births per female) right now and are expected to start declining.

“A generation or so from now, there will be fewer temporary foreign workers available, and fewer immigrants available over all, so we will be competing for immigrants,” says Ibbitson.

The largest source countries for immigrants in Canada are the Philippines and India. India has reached the replacement rate of 2.1 and the Philippines is above the replacement rate but urbanizing at an accelerated rate, with a rapidly declining fertility rate.

“In the immediate term, I think Canada is going to be fine,” says Ibbitson. “In the long term, we’re going to be challenged along with everyone else.”

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Angela Lovell

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