“I tell my 5- and 7-year-old boys to not tell anyone that we are farmers.”
Special to Farmers Forum
I am a fifth-generation fruit and vegetable farmer near Hamilton, Ontario. For the past 28 years, I have been managing our 240-acre broccoli and onion farm alongside my father.
We take pride in the work we do providing healthy and safe food that many of you buy at your local grocery stores. Most years, my biggest worries and stress come from the weather (too cold, too hot, too dry, too wet) and the sale of our crops. One thing we do not usually have to worry about is our workforce. We could not farm without the temporary foreign workers who come to work every year. These employees often return annually and become a part of the family. Simply put, our farms could not run without them. While we also look for Canadian employees, the reality is we cannot find reliable local help that is skilled and return each year and are reliable enough to use annually for the season.
On my farm we have 18 men from Jamaica; five have been returning annually for more than 25 years. One of them, Lloyd Dyer, has been working on our farm for 31 years. He watched me grow up and now he is seeing my kids grow up. I think that is the coolest thing! I spend more time with these men than I do with my own family. They live 100 yards from my house and they play basketball and soccer with my kids. These men would do anything for my family, and we would do anything for them and their families.
The temporary foreign worker program that organizes their employment is organized by the workers’ country, in our case Jamaica. Prospective workers apply and wait to be matched with a farm. When we need a new worker, a worker on the list will be called. They work here for the year and go home when we are done. Sometimes sooner, if they need to get home to family.
Before the next season, we call and request the workers from the prior year to come back. If they say yes, they are scheduled to fly in when the season starts. If they say no, they can go to another farm. They make their choice.
Being a farmer is one the greatest jobs I could ever do. I love what I do. But in the last five years it has become more difficult. In Ontario, there are organizations, often activist groups, accusing farmers of being the worst employers imaginable. The propaganda that these groups are spreading is affecting me mentally. We read in the news that we as farmers don’t care and that our employees live in the worst living conditions possible and are denied basics of life and health care.
Those accusations cut me to the core because it couldn’t be further from the truth. Seasonal Agriculture Workers Program (SAWP) receive the same benefits as a regular Canadian as soon as they land in Toronto. (OHIP, social insurance number etc.). Our family physician takes them as patients while they are here. They have group benefit insurance for all their non-OHIP insured medical costs like medications.
These anti-agriculture groups spread lies and false accusations in all forms of media. Recently, they produced a propaganda-style resource that they shared through the Ontario school system. Schools are supposed to be a safe learning space, not a vehicle for activist groups and unions to spread their lies. It is a sad world when I must tell my 5- and 7-year-old boys to not tell anyone that we are farmers.
We’ve tried to reach out to these activist groups to open lines of communication and to build understanding. They NEVER respond to emails or phone calls from us. These groups are funded by the unions, who have been trying to unionize farm workers for at least 20 years; they have lost every court case they have tried.
We’re lucky to live in a country where farmers produce food that is among the safest on the planet. We farm under more regulations than most other countries in the world. Now, with the pandemic, like all employers, we have even more regulations that we must follow when it comes to our employees. They are important because we want to keep our employees as safe as possible. We work individually with Public Health and the Ministry of Labour, following guidelines, recommendations and being available for inspections.
It’s true that we, as farmers, are in business to make a living and support our families – just like any other business. However, it’s getting to the point where my father and I are asking each other what the point of growing food is if the average consumer doesn’t care about the work that goes into it.
With more and more people moving to Ontario and fewer people farming, growing food locally needs to be a big priority.
Please know that as we enter a second year of the pandemic, and as our workers begin to arrive here for a two-week quarantine period before they can start work, we’re doing everything we can.
Pass on the word and maybe the next time when a non-farmer buys onions or a head of broccoli in the grocery store, that consumer will think of the people who grew it — both farmers like me and our incredible team of temporary foreign workers.
Kenny Forth is a fruit and vegetable grower at Lyndon, Ontario.