By Connor Lynch
THAMESVILLE — In mid-April, asparagus farmer John Jaques at Thamesville, Chatham-Kent, was in a precarious position. The farmer crops about 300 acres, most of which are asparagus. He relies on migrant workers to harvest that asparagus. But there was good reason to think they would be late, if they came at all. He had to make a decision: Take the chance that the workers will come, or cut back on harvesting acres.
“Like a lot of other farmers, we thought we’d be lucky to have a crop,” he said.
Mother Nature is a fickle friend but came through for the farmer this year. A spring cold snap is normally unwelcome, but the one that breezed through in early May bought him valuable time.
Normally Jaques brings in 30 workers from Mexico, but getting workers, from Mexico in particular, has been a slow process this year, so he’s borrowed from other farms. With the extra time the cool weather bought him on asparagus maturation, he figured he’d have enough time for his workers to clear quarantine and get his crop out of the ground. “We should be in good shape.”
But Jaques said that he is one of the lucky ones. Executive director of the Ontario asparagus growers’ association Bernie Solymar told the Hamilton Spectator that most farmers only expect to harvest half their acres.
Ken Forth, president of the Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS), which helps with farmers’ logistics in getting migrant workers, said that as of May 1, Ontario had brought in about 15,000 migrant workers, as many as two plane loads per day, he said. “It sounds like a lot, unless you’re one of the farms without.” It’s about half of what they were expecting, back in December before the world turned upside down.
At the local level, the lack of workers will undoubtedly have an impact. The federal support of $1,500 per worker per day to cover wages while they’re in isolation for two weeks is helpful, but farms are facing added expenses, including a $1,750 cost for each worker to take a charter flight to Toronto.
Some farms that don’t think they can get their workers are backing out of planting a crop. “One grower that usually has 50 (migrant workers), said he’s cutting back to nine,” Forth said.
The biggest concern is if workers get sick with COVID-19, he said. A crop unplanted might cost a farmer $300,000, Forth said. That same crop planted but not harvested might cost that farmer $1 million. “You will never see that farmer again.”
One Western Ontario vegetable grower cut back on planting and said the farm dropped its application for 42 migrant workers, down to 22.
The farm has cut back on banana peppers by 60 per cent, cucumbers by 25 per cent and dropped jalapenos entirely. One of the biggest concerns was at the processors’ end: Would they be operating at full capacity, or at all, come harvest?
The farm may have been able to supplement their labour force with locals but that would’ve been a huge biosecurity concern, he told Farmers Forum. “(COVID-19) cannot get into the bunkhouse” and mixing an isolated bunkhouse environment with locals who might be going to the grocery store, mixing with their own families, introduces substantial risk. “We need to keep them in a bubble,” he said.
About 15,000 migrant workers arrive by May 1 in Ontario but that’s half of what’s needed
By Connor Lynch