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Ag labour is skilled labour

A man picks strawberries under a tunnel, representing agriculture labour

Every year Canadian farmers depend on approximately 60,000 temporary foreign workers who come to our country on short-term visas and do everything from planting asparagus to pruning apple orchards. Given COVID-19, however, it has been challenging for farmers to get these workers on their farms. Fewer people are coming to our country on these temporary visas and when they get here, they have to be quarantined for 14 days in social isolation. This is creating major hurdles for farmers and workers alike that the industry is trying to work through. At the same time, Canadians are facing massive unemployment, especially in the service sector where restaurants and bars have closed.

Is it possible to connect unemployed Canadian workers with farms who desperately need labour? Or are there other things we need to be working on and thinking of as well? To get to the bottom of these questions, Arrell Food Institute’s experts weighed in.

Maria Corradini, Arrell Chair in Food Quality

Food quality and safety starts at the production of raw materials. You cannot generate an excellent final product from a tainted or low-quality raw material.

Mishandling at any step including harvesting is difficult to revert and affects the quality and safety of the final product or results in losses. Bruising, ill-stacking of goods, lack of good agricultural and manufacturing practices can reduce nutritional content, appeal and make produce more prone to contamination.

A qualified seasonal worker is not easy to replace, and training is required to minimize loses, attain top quality and maintain the safety of the workers and the food supply chain.

Simon Somogyi, Arrell Chair in the Business of Food

The pandemic is impacting the availability of farm labour in Canada and it comes at an unfortunate time: planting has begun. This impacts the fruit and vegetable production sector in Canada to a great degree as much of what they produce is either hand planted for hand pruned in advance of the season. Canada imports approximately 65% of the fruits and vegetables it consumes. Fresh fruits and vegetables can be expensive, especially when weather and disease impact the supply of produce and a poor Canadian dollar impacts the buying power of our retailers. As such, fruits and vegetable prices fluctuate wildly. As an example, tomato prices increased 18.9% for the year to February 2020 with produce prices typically decreasing as Canadian production comes online. The hope is that the Canadian fruit and vegetable season can be a success, and this will help elevate cost pressures on families and we need human labour to make this happen.

Philip Loring, Arrell Chair in Food, Policy and Society

Agricultural work abroad is often an extremely important source of income not just for individuals but for extended families. While poorly documented, we know generally that remittances account for nearly 3% of Mexico’s GDP, and I’ve been told anecdotally by migrant workers from Northern Mexico that their seasonal work abroad brings in as much as 75% of their family’s annual income. So the impacts of losing this work will be severe for the workers as well.

Evan Fraser, Director, Arrell Food Institute, University of Guelph.

It’s a misnomer to think that agricultural labour is unskilled. In fact, the people who come to our country to work on our farms are highly skilled, so I worry that it might be a bit naïve to think that unemployed Canadians can quickly become a useful workforce to farmers. As one farmer said to me recently, the difference between having a skilled workforce (i.e. a worker who can be efficient and productive), and having to train a whole lot of new workers, can mean the difference between having a good harvest and having a bad harvest and being profitable or losing money.

I can relate to this personally. When I was a teenager and college student, I worked on my grandfather’s fruit farm in Niagara. It took years of practice before I was an effective strawberry picker and for the first two years, at least, not only was I slow but I also bruised the fruit as I was harvesting it. So, I’d be worried that simply trying to connect Canadian youth with farmers might result in more cost to the farmers than the labour is actually worth.

In the medium-term it’s possible that we could establish programs and connections to link farm groups with colleges, high schools, and universities and create apprenticeships and work study opportunities and this might be a really exciting development to explore over the next few months as a way of reducing our dependence on international labour. But I think it would take some time to develop an effective agricultural workforce and probably wouldn’t be all that useful this year.

Looking ahead

The top priority of all is a functioning food system that provides safe and healthy food to Canadians and those around the globe, within safe work environments. The work of those throughout the industry, not just in production, is skilled work that also requires long hours and precision. As we look at the challenges before us, thoughtful conversations with participants in across sectors may provide solutions to help all.