We hear about them, but few of us know them or even see them. Each year, seasonal agricultural workers join Canadian farmers to seed and harvest the fresh fruits and vegetables we love to enjoy with our families and friends. It’s no secret that farming is a lot of work and seasonal agricultural workers are an important part of our food system.
These essential workers create stability and security in our food system that a domestic labour force simply can’t. A labour gap has persisted in Canadian agriculture for decades and continues to worsen as a variety of new jobs become available in cities. Not only do rural areas lack extra hands during critical periods but this is an industry where skilled labour can make or break an operation.
Temporary is the new long-term
The Temporary Foreign Worker Program was introduced in 1973 as a response to labour shortages in Canadian agriculture. Since then, this program has been anything but temporary and is now an integral part of the agricultural labour force.
Sufficient labour cannot be sourced locally because farm jobs are not appealing for Canadians. In 2019, nearly 60,000 seasonal agricultural workers came to Canada to work on Canadian farms. Even with these workers, 16,000 job vacancies remained.
Last year, COVID-19 caused record unemployment levels in Canada with approximately three million Canadians out of work. However, these job-seekers were not generally looking for jobs outside of cities, and Canadian farmers still had to rely on seasonal workers to plant and harvest crops. Read more about how COVID-19 has exacerbated labour shortages in Canadian agriculture.
The onset of the pandemic highlighted this reliance as a major vulnerability. It became very difficult to bring seasonal workers into Canada given travel restrictions, detailed documentation requirements and the need for suitable accommodations if an outbreak were to occur on a farm.
During COVID-impacted times, it’s become obvious now, more than ever, how much Canadian farmers need and value their workers.
One big happy family
“They’re incredible workers and more than that, we feel privileged to have the opportunity to learn about their cultural background and life in their home country,” shared Amanda Dooney, an apple farmer from Norfolk, Ontario. “We’re really just one big family,” she added.
Amanda and her husband Hayden bought Suncrest Orchards in 2019, prepared to take on all the challenges of apple farming. Suncrest Orchards employs around six workers in the spring and summer and 18 to 20 in the fall, during harvest. Their transition was made easier with the help of the seasonal workers who had been working on the farm for many years with the previous farm owner.
“It was such a help having the guys with their extensive knowledge and familiarity with the farm to teach us as we went,” Dooney shared.
“The Dooney family was warm and friendly right from the beginning,” explained Livian Thompson, a seasonal worker who started working for Suncrest Orchards in 2020 but has been involved in the Seasonal Agriculture Worker Program for 21 years now. “It is a great environment to work in and I don’t miss home when I’m with the Dooney family.”
Like the rest of the workers on the farm, Thompson is from Jamaica where he lives with his wife and four boys. Although he misses his family, he is able to text and FaceTime his wife and sons every morning and evening.
Dooney noted that the entire Dooney family hops on video calls to catch up with their workers’ families. “It’s important for us to know that our workers are doing well and that we’re making them as comfortable as possible.”
This also applies to the worker accommodations on the farm. Dooney shared that renovation plans are underway to enhance the bunkhouses with air conditioning and liven the place up with cultural decor. “We’ve included our guys in the renovations by asking what they want. They’ll be spending the most time here so it only makes sense.”
“Our farm is our bubble and COVID has brought us all closer together,” Dooney explained in reference to working through the pandemic last summer, and once again this year. With little to no contact with extended family, Dooney shared that they really got to know their workers this year more than ever.
Their biggest fear is having an outbreak on the farm that would risk the safety of their workers, in addition to the harvest of their crop. Amanda and Hayden do their best to set an example by limiting contact with others, and their workers also take things very seriously.
“COVID has made things difficult but we all try our best to do what we can to stay away from the dangers,” explained Thompson. “There is never anything to be scared of with the Dooney family” he continued.
Restrictions have been very difficult for the workers because they are typically very social. Dooney notes that in past years, area farmers have held events such as soccer matches and food truck festivals to bring all workers in the area together and celebrate their different cultures.
“Last year we weren’t able to do those things so we had to get creative,” explained Dooney. “Friends of ours have a DJ business so we borrowed some of their equipment and set it up for the guys to have some fun.” At Suncrest Orchards, the Dooneys never miss an opportunity to celebrate so each birthday and Father’s Day means a special dinner, cake and some beers.
Kindness grows a long way
“To me, it’s common sense that if our workers are treated with respect and dignity, if they’re comfortable and happy, this will carry over to their work day,” said Dooney.
Thompson affirms that he likes his work environment and the work he does, which explains his dedication for 21 years. When asked why Thompson chose to participate in the Seasonal Agriculture Worker Program, he explained that work opportunities are very limited in Jamaica.
“I had to find a way to support my growing family.”
Thompson’s hard work and dedication paid off, as all of his sons are now educated young men. His oldest son is an engineer, the second oldest is in the army, the third is teaching English in Japan and his youngest is studying journalism.
“Many of our workers are starting to age out and their kids aren’t coming to replace them. We’ve elevated the next generation,” explains Nova Scotian farmer Philip Keddy, owner of C.O. Keddy Nursery Inc. “All of our workers have bettered their own lives and their children’s lives.”
Keddy also shares that many of his workers have been with them for over 18 years and as they move into retirement, they’ll have nice houses to live in after the years of hard work and savings. “Our workers appreciate coming here but they also appreciate going home.”
“Our workers are here eight months out of the year, which is more than they’re at home,” Dooney points out. “They’re a big part of our community.” In fact, seasonal workers make a large contribution to local economies. Dooney believes it’s incumbent upon all community members to make seasonal workers feel welcome, even just through light conversation.
“As Canadians, we need to make more of an effort to get to know essential farm workers in our communities. They make many sacrifices to come to Canada to grow the food we depend upon.”
Changing the narrative
Dooney emphasizes how much her workers have enhanced her personal life and her family, and she has made it part of her mission for others to see that.
“We love our guys, they’re a part of our family. It’s so disappointing that they can be lumped in with the negative stories. There’s also a lot of positive stories about the impact these workers make to benefit us all that need to be heard.”
Farmers have faced a lot of challenges with the onset of the pandemic and they have been expected to pivot in response to each new regulation. Although lifestyles have had to change, COVID-19 has been an opportunity for workers and employers to strengthen their bond with each other.
It is also important to consider the positive impacts of the seasonal agriculture program beyond our borders.
“When we go home, we bring back skills and knowledge that we can share with farmers in our communities,” Thompson explains. “Things are very different in Canada but it’s great for us to see the possibilities.”
Dooney noted that there is always room for improvement, but the seasonal agricultural worker program has come a long way and the opportunities it has created for these workers have been invaluable.
“Based on the number of seasonal workers Canada sources, the Seasonal Agriculture Worker program is the best type of foreign aid out there,” stated Keddy. “We can build the Canadian economy while also elevating foreign economies.
As the President of Horticulture Nova Scotia, Keddy also shares his insight on the future of the Canadian labour force. “We will always be dependent on sourcing labour which may not be a healthy dependency but our reality.”
Canadian farmers have been encouraged to invest in mechanization to reduce the amount of labour needed. Keddy explained with the precision needed to grow horticulture crops, producers can’t go further with mechanization. The push for improved housing regulations is another misunderstood aspect. Keddy noted that farmers are eager to invest in better housing, as long as consumers are willing to pay more for their produce and absorb the cost.
“We’re price takers, not price setters and farmers can’t afford to sell their produce at a fixed rate when costs for our workers increase substantially. We’re still trying to make a living.”
While the pandemic has created many barriers for farmers across Canada, Keddy stressed the significant role all seasonal workers have. “There’s no way our farm business could survive without our workers.” He optimistically adds, “as farmers, with every challenge we face, we can overcome it and find stability once again.”
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.