Cherries, strawberries, peaches, apricots, pears, and apples—it’s hard not to drool when you see fresh Canadian fruit arriving in stores or being sold from booths and trucks along the road. However, some of this year’s crop may be left behind in the orchards due to a shortage of seasonal fruit pickers caused by COVID-19.
A CBC News article indicates that the lush fields and orchards of the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia depend on a seasonal workforce of 7,500 people to bring in the bounty. In a normal year, 4,500 of them are skilled migrant workers from Mexico and the Caribbean, 1,500 are young people from Quebec and the remaining 1,500 are backpackers who come from elsewhere. Nevertheless, a video from July showed that few Canadians reached out for work on fruit farms this year. In Quebec, many people were asked if they wanted to make their way to British Columbia for work. Because of worries about travel and COVID-19, there was a decrease in Quebecois pickers this cherry season.
Sukhdeep Brar of Brarstar Orchards Ltd. in Summerland, B.C., comments, “At this time, most of our workers are backpackers from Quebec. As for migrant workers, we had a small crew come here right before the travel ban came in and I know there were a few workers that came in after as well, but the pandemic has majorly delayed things and not as many were able to get their visas in time to work here.”
Cherry picking in British Columbia has been tougher this year with less labour and a few dips in the weather.
“We had a couple of cold nights in April, which frosted up a lot of those fruits, so the overall tonnage of cherries is way down this year,” says Brar.
Peaches, another fragile fruit, will also be a source of difficulties. “It’s a very labour intensive crop. You pick them three times; you go in and pick the biggest and reddest ones, and you go back in a few days later to pick them again.”
Costs have also increased due to the need to follow COVID-19 public health guidelines.
Brar says, “There are a lot more expenses. There’s hand sanitizer and there are hand-washing stations. Just trying to keep everyone distanced and spaced out has added more costs and more time on our part.”
Fortunately, the Summerland town council decided to use half of one of the public campgrounds for fruit pickers, making room for about 75 workers. This helped local farmers who did not have the required facilities to space out workers; however, this was not the case in every town.
Similar struggles caused by the pandemic can also be found in Eastern Canada.
Earlier this summer, CP24 reported that about 20,000 migrant workers typically come to Ontario annually.
Kevin Howe of Howe Family Farms, a family-operated farm in Aylmer, Ont., producing strawberries, watermelons, pumpkins, and corn, says that they have experienced a labour reduction of over 60 per cent as a result of COVID-19. In addition to local workers, they usually have offshore workers from Trinidad and Tobago and Saint Vincent. Because of government restrictions in these countries due to COVID-19, half of the farm’s temporary foreign workers were not able to arrive until July.
Howe Family Farms also transfers workers between their farm and neighbouring farms that grow apples and tomatoes to help during the different harvest seasons. Although this seems practical, Howe says that there is a great amount of paperwork to be done during the pandemic to transfer or share migrant farmworkers. Also, only 50-60 local workers came to work this year for strawberry season, compared to the typical 190.
“In a normal year, we will transfer 40-45 workers from our neighbour farms during the strawberry season. We also rely very heavily on our local community for labour. In a typical strawberry year, we expect 250 pickers total. Of that, 65 would be temporary foreign workers. This year we averaged only around 90 pickers per day on some of the busiest days,” shares Howe.
With shortages of labour, an encounter with frost at the beginning of May and high temperatures during peak harvest, over 200,000 pounds of strawberries were left in the field this year on Howe’s farm. Fortunately, the watermelon season does not require as much labour, although it will still be a struggle to harvest as much as other years.
To keep workers safe during COVID-19, Howe Family Farms keeps a separate, vacant housing unit in case they need to quarantine workers. They go through safety checks every day and workers living in the same house are organized into work groups to reduce risk.
“In our small town of Aylmer, population 7,000, there are over 40 active cases right now. So we’re being even more vigilant, trying to keep everyone safe,” says Howe.
In Nova Scotia, another 1,500 migrant workers come to work, according to a Maritime business publication.
Peter Eisses of Breezeway Acres, an apple farm in Centreville, N.S., says that in addition to help from family members, he hires temporary foreign workers from Mexico. The apple harvest typically starts in early September and goes into mid-October.
“I got an email stating that my guys are going to be 10 days late. COVID-19 has delayed things and there are issues back in Mexico as well that are causing some problems,” says Eisses.
Delays are not simple to deal with, especially when the harvest is right around the corner.
“We’ve had an excellent growing season. We’ve had a very warm summer. That’s been very good for our crops and, as a result, I think that things will be a bit early in the apple world.”
A Statistics Canada report specifies that in a normal year, temporary foreign workers represent 41.6 per cent of the agricultural workers in Ontario, and over 30 per cent in Quebec, British Columbia and Nova Scotia. With the effects of the pandemic and the inability of migrant workers to enter the country, the labour shortages on fruit farms across Canada are undeniable.
CBC News notes that temporarily laid-off Canadians may want to help, but only until their regular jobs resume. Many unemployed Canadians are also receiving the $2,000 a month of federal emergency benefit and do not want to work more than what is allowed to remain eligible. Others agree to work but may quit. For example, a Penticton Herald article included a story of a grower in the Oliver area who hired two people; they worked one shift and did not show up again. It is difficult to get local workers on the farm as the work consists of long hours and repetitive tasks, and is physically demanding. Migrant workers are a dependable source for fruit farms as they come year after year and are highly skilled.
So, the next time you bite into a bowl full of local strawberries, a juicy peach, or a crisp apple, remember to stop and appreciate the efforts of our farmers and the foreign and domestic farmworkers who harvest the crops. Visit those enticing roadside stands and nearby farmers’ markets to help our Canadian producers and fruit pickers. They work very hard to delight our palates and fill our plates with colourful and delicious fruit.