Grower says anti-farm policies will lead to fewer labour-intensive orchards, vineyards
BEAMSVILLE — Niagara-area fruit-grower Torrie Warner wonders about the future of his region’s peach, apricot and apple orchards — given the increasing bureaucracy around hiring temporary foreign workers crucial to the fruit and vegetable industry. The bureaucracy has gotten so bad, Warner says that federal auditors tried to penalize him for paying his foreign employees too much. It took Warner two months to get the penalty dropped.
Warner says it happened the last time his farm was subject to a program integrity audit, during the busy pandemic summer of 2021, for the third time in five or six years. He was initially found to be in non-compliance with the program because of higher wages paid to his longer-serving employees in the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. “I was considered in breach of contract… for paying more,” he exclaimed. “I certainly did not expect that to be a penalty.”
He also fell afoul of the rules for paying his workers an advance upon arrival, so they could buy clothes and groceries. “Apparently, that is not supposed to happen, either, which to me is only being nice to the worker.”
His workers have individual rooms at the farm, but in their shared common area, they had couches instead of individual chairs, which fell afoul of the program’s COVID rules at the time, even though the workers were considered part of the same bubble. That was another no-no.
Because of the alleged shortcomings, the federal employee conducting the audit “wasn’t going to pass me as compliant with the program,” he said, which would have prevented the farm from getting more workers in the future. Warner went over her head and talked to her manager. The decision was ultimately reversed, he said, but not before two police officers showed up at the farm on a complaint that he had been impolite to a public servant. The complaint didn’t proceed any further.
“They said I was kind of verbally abusive or something,” he said, adding the frustrating audit process had gone on for about six weeks at that point. “I said, I can’t do anymore, this is all I can do.”
He says it’s no surprise he’s seeing more and more corn and soybean fields in his Niagara region where fruit crops once stood. “People are pulling out the high-labour orchards and vineyards and replacing them with lower-labour corn, soybeans and wheat,” he said, adding that one farm near his place now has sunflowers. A lot of the changeover has happened in the last 15 years.
“So long as they make labour laws more and more difficult, we’re going to keep losing fruit and vegetable lands,” he said.
While inflation and a rising minimum wage are part of the labour picture, Warner dwells on challenges with the foreign worker program. When his father first applied to the program 45 years ago, the form was a single, double-sided page. “Now it’s 15 or 16 pages.”
“The administration is just atrocious,” he added. “It’s not one thing. It seems like everything they do is one more nail in our coffin.”
The federal bureaucrats process the applications so slowly, they now require 17 or 18 weeks of lead time, according to Warner. He needs to apply in November, when harvest has barely finished, to get workers for the following spring. It used to be a six-week lead time, he said, allowing the farmer to apply in February or March.
This past spring, four of his workers who were supposed to arrive in April this year were still delayed until late May.
Warner, 53, predicts that younger fruit farmers will have less tolerance for the bureaucratic hurdles and will go into something else, like the commodity grain crops springing up in his region. “If they keep making policies that are anti-farm, we’re not going to have local products here pretty soon.”