A domestic labour shortage continues to burden agriculture but for those who need full-time year round help, foreign labour has been a gratifying solution.
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture says four in 10 farms can’t find the labour they need and veterinarian Matt Walker of Oxford County said that on visits to dairy farms that the problem “has increased during the pandemic. The government has made it easy to sit at home and collect money.”
A dairy farmer himself, Walker estimated that 8 to 10% of dairy farms now employ foreign labour. His herd isn’t in that camp. He’s fortunate to employ “a couple of good people” locally while relying on robotic milkers, he said.
Brent Howe, genetic consultant with Select Sires in Oxford, Elgin and Middlesex counties, pegged the number of dairies with foreign workers at 15%. Labour-saving is also behind the shift to robotic milking, “no matter what the herd size,” Howe said.
“Labour is a topic of conversation in a lot of driveways, and finding a solution, on the dairy end, robots are the solution for a lot of people,” he said, also agreeing the trend of hiring foreign employees is likely to grow, too, as a source of “consistent, reliable workers.”
In Eastern Ontario, dairy farmer Todd Nixon reported continued success with the Temporary Foreign Worker program to supply employees for barn chores and the milking parlour at Alexerin Dairy. He took the plunge about a year and a half before the rise of COVID. At any given time, three full-time employees from Guatemala have continued to work at the farm, straight through the pandemic.
So vital are such workers to fill a growing gap on Ontario farms, the CFA is calling for clear rules and government support for farmers to access the foreign worker program, along with potential permanent residency for those employees. The number of unfilled positions in Ontario agriculture is expected to reach 123,000 by 2029, up from 63,000 in 2018, according to the CFA.
The pandemic did complicate the arrival of those workers at Nixon’s farm south of Ottawa as authorities added restrictions, including the temporary quarantine requirement after crossing into Canada. “But other than that, it [the pandemic] hasn’t been an issue for us,” Nixon said.
The employees rotate through two-year contracts. When one Guatemalan returns home, another arrives on the farm.
Hosting the Guatemalans “has been a huge improvement for us,” he said. “They haven’t missed a shift, switched a shift, been late for a shift, since they started. Which is way different from when we were running a lot of students before.”
He knows of at least four other dairy farms with full-time Guatemalans.
At Hoenhorst Farms, co-owner Cox Wensink said the operation added six Guatemalans to the workforce in 2019. Participating in the temporary foreign worker program allowed the Innerkip dairy farm “to have a stable team … and this has brought a very positive change in many aspects,” she said. Previously, Wensink added, “management had to regularly jump in to fill empty shifts last minute. This put a strain on the farm and our personal lives, as it became increasingly difficult to manage all the work while being chronically under-staffed.”
Some farms continue to source labour the traditional way, either in-family or find local workers. Others have hired recent college graduates or European students.
At Fradon Holsteins in Woodstock, Frank Donkers reported recently hiring a college graduate to handle the chores at the robotic, 75-head operation, solving a weeks-long labour crunch on the farm.
“We were lucky enough that it worked out,” said Donkers, adding his farm has also traditionally employed students from Europe for stints of 6 weeks to 6 months.