OTTAWA — The number of farm employees in Canada held steady during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic while non-farm jobs plummeted.
The number of people working on Canadian farms stood at 278,762 in 2020, a decline of just 0.3% — or 878 — from 2019, according to Statistics Canada.
2020 is the most recent year of farm employment numbers from the federal agency, after a recent data update.
The year 2020 is notable as the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when governments locked down the economy and paid many “non-essential” workers to stay home. Agriculture was among the sectors deemed essential, with many of those employees staying on the job.
Agriculture’s steady employment performance was a big contrast with the economy as a whole. By December 2020, 1.1 million Canadian workers were still either unemployed or underemployed (reduced hours) as a result of the government’s response to the virus. In Ontario alone, the Financial Accountability Office estimated 355,300 jobs lost in 2020, the largest annual decline in employment on record. The provincial unemployment rate jumped to 9.6 % in 2020, its worst level since 1993.
Seasonal employees — many of them temporary foreign workers — accounted for more than half of Canada’s agricultural workforce in 2020. Temporary foreign workers usually number about 35,000 to 40,000 within that seasonal group, estimated Ken Forth, Chair of the Labour Section of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association. In total, there were 55,571 temporary foreign agriculture and agri-food workers in 2020, according to StatCan.
There was an increase in difficulty in finding farm workers, Forth said, noting that many retired Canadians who worked on farms for additional income, quit to avoid possible risk. Onerous Covid rules also delayed many foreign workers from coming to Canada, he said.
Of farm workers in 2020, the greenhouse, nursery and floriculture production industry employed the most seasonal workers — 21.7% — and was the largest farm employer in Canada, employing 59,737 (up from 57,885 in 2019).
Canadian oilseed and grain farming employed 49,168 in 2020 (up from 48,810 in 2019). Vegetable and melon operations employed 36,140 (up from 34,962 in 2019).
Canada’s dairy farmers were the fourth largest agriculture employer with a workforce of 31,722, the first time since 2016 that fewer than 32,000 people worked in the sector.
The fifth largest agriculture employer were fruit and tree nut farmers with 30,820 employees.