The tiny asparagus spears poking out of the soil did not survive the night. It was too cold. Yet, it is a sign that harvest time is getting closer.
However, many Canadian farmers are worried that a delay in the arrival of temporary foreign workers because of COVID-19 could result in decreased production, possible food shortages and, in turn, increased prices.
“On a good day we can harvest 20,000 pounds of asparagus,” says John Jaques of Sunshine Asparagus Farms in Thamesville, Ont.
“If we don’t have labour and if we aren’t capable of getting it out of the field and getting it packed, you know, that could be $40,000 worth of product there.”
Asparagus is one the first fresh vegetables harvested in Ontario every spring. Jaques, like thousands of other farmers across Canada, relies on temporary foreign workers. He has been hiring workers to help with the harvest for the past 20 years.
He was expecting 30 workers to arrive by April 24 from Mexico, ready for harvest the first week of May. Now he is not sure when they will all arrive.
“We need all hands on deck to get it out of the field,” says Jaques, whose farm has been in the family since 1850.
Every year, the Canadian agricultural industry employs about 60,000 temporary foreign workers. When Canada closed its border on March 21 to non-essential travel, it initially included these workers. They have since been granted an exemption due to the labour-intensive nature of Canada’s agriculture industry, but even so, it’s unclear how many will come this season.
Jaques is hoping some of the workers he employs will arrive at his farm next week. But flight schedules to Canada have been erratic, and once workers do arrive in the country they must be quarantined for 14 days. All these factors could delay his harvest further.
“One of the things that COVID is doing is it’s revealing to us a bunch of areas where our food system is vulnerable, and one of those areas is labour,” says Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph.
“I think it’s going to [create] a whole bunch of disruptions. The fact that we aren’t able to get labour in the sort of seamless or frictionless way as we’re used to means that planting will be delayed, and that things like pruning apple orchards won’t happen with the same level of efficiency.”
It’s not just farmers who are dealing with COVID-19-related uncertainty.
Del-Leon Walker arrived in Nova Scotia from Jamaica earlier this week to work on Charles Keddy’s strawberry farm for his 14th season. He says it was hard to leave his wife and two children at an unpredictable time.
“They were feeling sad, but I sat with them and we talked about it, and they understand what we are going through and it’s a pandemic, it’s all around. It’s here and it’s in Jamaica,” says Walker. “So we just have to do what we have to do and just be safe.”
Walker says he also knows of someone who decided not to come to Canada to work on the harvest this year for fear of contracting the virus.
“We understand that there are a lot more cases here, but we still made the decision to be here …. This is work, and without work we will not survive.”
He is currently in quarantine in his own room on-site at the farm. Walker is being paid for his time in quarantine, but is anxious to get to work.
“We understand this is a serious time,” he says. “And we are happy with the work we have done over the years.”
Back in Ontario, Jaques is renovating the bunkhouses for the workers in order to accommodate for physical distancing. He’s also retro-fitting farm equipment so they don’t sit so close together on harvest aids, as well as purchasing more to make up the shortfall.
“Some farmers are saying I don’t have the bunkhouses to house my workers, so I’m only bringing in half as much, we’re only going to pick half our crop. So there will be [production issues], I think that supplies will be tight.”
At his on-site processing facility, where asparagus is bundled as well as pickled and put in jars, fewer workers will be able to work the line in order to accommodate physical distancing, further slowing production.
All of which increases Jaques’ costs, and may cut into production.
And that could mean higher prices at the checkout aisle.
“I hope the prices are higher, because in order to cover the extra costs I think we need to have a higher price. But we’ll see what happens … I don’t make those decisions,” says Jaques.
Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a program offering $1,500 per temporary foreign worker to each farmer to help recoup things like extra housing and equipment costs. But that does nothing to offset the delay in getting people to start work.
“Our system is really struggling right now to figure out what to do in the absence of this labour or having this labour come in at a much smaller, slower rate,” says Fraser.
“Perhaps some items that we used to get from Ontario farms may not be as plentiful this year, and they may be more expensive.”
But Fraser also says consumers should not worry.
“I’m seeing heroic, Herculean efforts by our farmers, our food processors and by government to try to keep the system moving along as effectively as possible.”
The issues with migrant workers could also be an opportunity for Canadians looking for work. An Instagram account @HelpCanadaGrow and a Facebook page were launched last week to connect local people with farmers to help fill the labour gap.
Quebec, expecting a shortfall of 3,000 workers, has also announced a program to recruit 8,500 Quebec workers for the agricultural sector.
Jaques has started looking at training local help to fill the gap at his farm, and some nearby families have also offered to help out in those crucial first few weeks of harvest. But he still expects a tough season ahead.
“It’s still a long road ahead. I think it’s going to be a challenge training new workers.”
He also hopes for a few more cold nights to delay harvest until his workforce is ready.
“I’m sure Mother Nature will co-operate. She always does.”