By Tom Collins and Connor Lynch
LEAMINGTON — Western Ontario fruit and vegetable growers are finding it tough to pass the extra costs of labour on to consumers, forcing many to simply eat the minimum wage increases.
Former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne announced in 2017 that the provincial minimum wage would rise from $11.40 an hour to $14 an hour on Jan. 1, 2018, a 23 per cent increase. The minimum wage was to rise to $15 an hour in January, 2019, but Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced in late September that minimum wage would stay at $14 an hour.
That’s good news for greenhouse vegetable growers, said Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers general manager Joe Sbrocchi. “Agriculture is not exactly something where you can just translate that into higher prices at the other end.”
Sbrocchi said it is difficult for growers to pass the increase to consumers, so farmers had to find other efficiencies, a tough task as there’s not a lot of wiggle room.
Despite the minimum wage increase, greenhouses are still looking to hire.
“You won’t go by a greenhouse without a ‘Now Hiring’ sign,” he said. “We as an industry would hire every local person we could. You need the hands when harvest is ready. Even in a protected environment, sunlight vs. cloudy days can slow or speed things. Three or four days can take you from an orderly marketing situation to a glut where prices fall and it can be very difficult to get them back.”
Tom Pate, of Brantwood Farms in Brant County, said the minimum wage increase has reduced his income, but he hasn’t had to reduce hours or employees. However, this year’s higher yields are mitigating the effects of the minimum wage increase, he said.
Pate pays many of his workers on a piecework basis for harvesting strawberries, corn, apples and beans. For example, he pays $8 for each bushel of beans an employee picks. If an employee picks three bushels an hour, the employee is paid $24. Pate says employees who are good at their jobs will pick more beans and make more money, which is also good for Pate, as it gives him more product to sell and make more money for himself.
Margaret Deblieck, of Josmar Acres at Lynden, about 20 minutes southeast of Cambridge, has had to cut back on labour. Instead of two employees working at the on-farm market at the same time, there is now only one. Her family — the farm is also run by her husband and three kids — has to work more hours to make up the difference.
“It hurts,” she said. “We’re not overly big. You still need that help.”