By Connor Lynch
NORTH GOWER — Greg Foster used to hire locals for his 500-acre North Gower vegetable operation. But 11 years ago, he wanted to expand to bring his son Mel into the business and knew he wouldn’t be able to fill all the jobs on the farm.
“It was getting increasingly difficult to recruit and hire local people who wanted to work,” even when he paid as much as $18 per hour to pick beans four years ago, he said.
So he turned to the seasonal agricultural worker program, which connects farmers with migrant workers.
The first year he applied to bring up two workers. This year, he’ll be bringing 11 Jamaicans. “It’s the lifeline of this farming operation,” Foster said. “They’re reliable and they bring a work ethic.”
They also appreciate what they get. Flights paid both ways, minimum wage and free accommodation.
“Some of the fellas cry when they see the trailers,” said Foster. “They’re air-conditioned in the summer, heated in the fall. They’re modern trailers and they’re supplied at no charge.”
Filling on-farm jobs can be a big headache for farmers, especially fruit and vegetable producers. Traditionally farmers have relied on their children to take over the farm but Canadians are having fewer children and young people are increasingly moving away. The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council reported this year that annual cash receipt losses for Canadian agricultural producers due to job vacancies was $1.5 billion.
The human resource council found that Canadian producers had 59,000 jobs they couldn’t fill with Canadians in 2014 alone. They filled 46,000 of them, mostly with Mexicans and Jamaicans. Back in 1995, foreign workers were about two per cent of the Canadian agricultural labour force. They now make up 12 per cent of the agricultural labour force. But jobs still go begging and the situation is expected to get much worse. The human resource council forecasts that the number of food-producing jobs unfilled by Canadians will balloon to 114,000 in 10 years. Half of those vacancies are jobs for general farm workers.
While many Eastern Ontario producers turn to migrant workers, other farms take more drastic measures.
Quinte West vegetable farmer Colin Crews downsized. He dropped from managing a 100-acre apple orchard to 15 acres because he simply couldn’t find local help and couldn’t afford the costs of flying in foreigners to do the job.
Five years ago he was bringing in nine workers a year but the cost of housing, round-trip flights and a guaranteed 40 hours a week at minimum wage proved too much of a financial burden. “It’s much more expensive to bring people up, but you can count on them being out there at 7 a.m. when it’s time to work,” Crews said. “The workforce in this country, it’s not there. Why would they come out and harvest apples when they can sit at home and collect welfare?”
Shannon Miller agrees. The mixed vegetable, cash crop and strawberry farmer near Smiths Falls said there are a lot of locals looking for a job and they could earn up to $16 an hour picking strawberries but they go home to clean clothes and food on the table whether they work hard or not.
“Quite frankly, there’s lots of people around looking for work on the farm, but they aren’t willing to work as hard,” said Miller, who hires Mexicans to work on her farm each year. “We make jobs available to all kinds of students, start with upwards of 50 on our list of picking — after one or two days down to 25, after a week down to 15, and by the end of the season you may only have 7.”
Because her foreign workers are so reliable, Miller has been able to expand her client base to include wholesalers. “Without them, we wouldn’t even be growing fruits and vegetables.”
Hiring foreign labour, however, can have its own set of problems, including managing people who have to live together, as well as language and cultural issues. Crews started out with a Jamaican crew but switched to Mexicans because “they fought less.” The Mexicans didn’t speak English so he switched back to the Jamaicans. Last year in Leamington in Western Ontario, locals complained that foreign workers were sexually assaulting local women on the streets.
Other farmers have found ways to mitigate the cost of hiring foreign workers. Brighton apple grower Bob Dunnett splits the flight costs with a peach grower. They bring in as many as 20 foreign workers who work half a season on the peach farm and the other half on Dunnett’s apple farm.
“Without these people, I don’t know how we’d survive,” Dunnett said.