By Tom Collins and Connor Lynch
CEDAR SPRINGS — Cash crop and fruit farmer Hector Delange is one of the lucky ones. The 81-year-old, who once told his wife he was married to the farm first and her second, had most of his migrant workers by June 2. He relies on them to get his crop prepped, pruned and picked, and his crew from Jamaica, some of whom have been coming for 30 years, arrived on schedule. Two weeks of isolation set timelines back a bit, but some neighbouring farmers who worked for Delange some 40 years ago swung by to help out and keep things moving until the Jamaican workers were free to go.
Not all farmers are in the same boat. President of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS) Ken Forth said that as of May 20, Ontario farms had about 78 per cent of the foreign workers they normally brings in.
“That percentage sounds OK if you’re in high school, but not when you’re producing crops. The ramifications of this will be significant,” and unpredictable, he said. In addition to chaos in the scheduling of flights for workers, they have to be isolated for two weeks once they arrive and can’t work. There’s been significant variation too; some farms have gotten all their workers, even early. Others have none. “I know, for sure, that there will be growers who if they don’t get workers this year” will be out of the business, he said.
Asparagus, especially, had taken a big hit. The vast majority of Ontario’s early-season crop is grown in Norfolk County, where the local health unit has restricted the number of workers per bunkhouse to three, even if it’s sized and equipped for more. Between that and a worker shortage, much of the crop won’t come out of the ground.
In any other year, Norfolk farmer Ken Wall of Sandy Shore Farms would have 150 foreign workers. He grows 750 acres of asparagus, one-third of all of Ontario’s acres. This year, he’s down by 40 to 50 workers thanks to COVID-19 regulations delaying many Mexico and Jamaican workers from arriving in Canada.
While he had some local residents apply for jobs, they are untrained and inexperienced. A foreign worker with years of experience might be able to harvest two or three times as fast as someone just starting out.
“There is some estimate that 30 per cent of Ontario asparagus acreage is not being harvested simply because of a lack of access to labour,” Wall said. “It’s been a very tough grind so far.”
Despite the issues, quality has been stellar, and “production, when we can get to it, has been nothing short of incredible.”
Asparagus farmer Frank Schonberger and his wife Catherine had planned to bring in 42 Caribbean workers to harvest his 90-acre asparagus crop. But with so much uncertainty back in February, when the farm puts together its plan for the season, he only ended up bringing in 14. Local workers helped fill some of the gaps, but it made for a highly chaotic start to the season. Asparagus, a perennial, grows with the heat. “Unfortunate thing is that many of the local workers don’t work Sundays. Asparagus does,” said Schonberger. All told, Schonberger thinks he managed to get 60 per cent of his asparagus crop harvested.
It made for an extremely stressful season, he said, and he’ll think twice about doing it again next year if nothing’s changed with COVID-19. “It’s a very tough business decision that will have to be made, whether it’s renting out, plowing out the acreage, or selling part of the acreage and attempting a smaller acreage.”
Plus, he said, he misses the workers that couldn’t come, and he expects they miss the work. One guy’s been coming up to the farm for 22 years.
WESTERN ONTARIO: Foreign worker delay makes farm decisions tougher: Asparagus growers could lose 30 per cent of crop
By Tom Collins and Connor Lynch