By Connor Lynch
LOMBARDY — For strawberry farmer Shannon Miller at Lombardy, the dog days of summer are crunch time. The farm has a roadside stand with pre-picked strawberries in the town of Perth. It’s a popular spot, and she employs a dozen students during the summer to man it. It’s where she makes most of her sales.
But those strawberries have to get picked before they are sold. Normally Miller brings in seven workers from Mexico and keeps them plenty busy picking and weeding. But by May 20, she was hoping to pick up her first worker sometime during the week. Normally she’d have five by then.
In the meantime she’d continued planting as normal with help from family and friends, since demand for local food has been so massive since the COVID-19 outbreak. But the arrival of migrant workers has been fractious in Ontario and she was nervous. If the workers don’t come in, or on time, or only some of them, she has contingencies in mind: Cut wholesale sales, reduce hours at the roadside stand or cut it entirely, if necessary.
She’s far from alone. President of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS) Ken Forth said that as of May 20, Ontario had about 78 per cent of the 30,000 foreign workers that normally arrive. The organization helps get workers to farms. “That percentage sounds OK if you’re in high school, but not when you’re producing crops. The ramifications of this will be significant,” and unpredictable, he said. In addition to chaos in the scheduling of flights for workers, they have to be isolated for two weeks once they arrive and can’t work. There’s been significant variation too; some farms have gotten all their workers, even early. Others have none. “I know, for sure, that there will be growers who if they don’t get workers this year” will be out of the business, he said. “Dots haven’t been connected. If there isn’t enough labour, food doesn’t get produced.”
David Phillips, of Avonmore Berry Farm, was one of the fortunate ones. His first group of four workers arrived three weeks early, and four more were scheduled to come in two weeks early as well. “We’re in good shape, as far as that goes.”
But for Miller, uncertainty hung over her whole season. She’d launched an online store and may have to turn entirely to it, as a way to control demand, if her workers don’t make it in time. “If supply is significantly limited, the only way to make it work is by online ordering. Otherwise people will be stopping in and seeing nothing there.”
EASTERN ONTARIO: Uncertainty hanging over farms waiting for migrant workers
By Connor Lynch