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A thank you to seasonal ag workers

A thank you to seasonal ag workers

The Canadian ag sector welcomed more than 61,000 temporary workers in 2021

By Diego Flammini
Staff Writer

As Canadian weather gets colder, some of the country’s unsung heroes are returning home.

Canadian farms employ about 60,000 seasonal agricultural workers each year. In 2021 that number was 61,735, Statistics Canada reported.

These workers are an integral part of multiple sectors within the Canadian ag industry, said Ken Forth, a vegetable farmer from Hamilton, Ont., and president of Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services, an organization which helps farms bring in seasonal workers.

“There would be virtually no horticulture industry in Ontario if it wasn’t for these workers,” he told from Mexico City where he’s doing organizational work. “They plant the crops, they care for the crops, they harvest the crops and package them. There’s no job these workers don’t do.”

Ontario farms employ the most seasonal workers.

In 2021, close to 27,000 seasonal ag workers contributed on farms across the province.

Most of the workers employed in 2022 have returned home with the remaining ones scheduled to fly back to Mexico and the Caribbean over the next few weeks.

And the relationships go far beyond between an employer and employee, Forth said.

“They become part of our family,” he said. “I had a guy who worked for me for 35 years, but I hadn’t seen him in four years because he retired. I went to see him in Jamaica, he’s got a very nice house and four kids who are all doing very well for themselves. He said everything he had was built by (our farm). I told him all I did was provide an opportunity, he put in the hard work.”

Seasonal ag workers come to Canada through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), which has been in place since 1966 to fill domestic gaps in ag labour.

Forth would put SAWP up against any other similar program. And that’s something consumers should understand, he said.

“It’s one of the best programs in the world because we actually care about these people who are leaving their families for months at a time,” he said. “They’re covered by every law and regulation a Canadian is, and more because they’re also covered by refugee legislation.”

Other farmers have expressed their gratitude to seasonal ag workers as well.

Karl Samuda, Jamaica’s minister of labour and social security, received such comments on a recent visit to Canada.

“Everyone I spoke to, the message was simply, ‘we don’t know what we would do without the Jamaican workers, and I would extend that to the [other] Caribbean people who are engaged in the programme, because they said to me in a declarative fashion, ‘without these workers we could not survive’.

“That made me very proud as a Jamaican, as a member of the Government of Jamaica and as a Caribbean person. It made me feel a sense of great pride,” he said on Nov. 17, Jamaican media reported.

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EVENT PREVIEW: You Can Help Reimagine Plant Breeding at the 2024 NAPB Meeting

Video: EVENT PREVIEW: You Can Help Reimagine Plant Breeding at the 2024 NAPB Meeting

Martin Bohn can’t wait to welcome people to the 2024 meeting of the National Association of Plant Breeders meeting being held in St. Louis, Miss., July 21-25. This year’s meeting, hosted by Bayer Crop Science and the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, promises to be one of the NAPB’s most important yet, evident in its theme Rethink, Reimagine and Revolutionize.

While the main conference will be held at the St. Louis Union Station Hotel, it will feature a tour of the nearby University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign facilities. Bohn serves not only as co-organizer of the meeting, but as crop sciences professor at the university.

“The conference theme revolves around rethinking, reimagining, and revolutionizing plant breeding. We’ve witnessed significant technological advancements over the past decade, with an abundance of genetic, phenotypic, and environmental data becoming more accessible, alongside the integration of artificial intelligence into data science, opening up new possibilities,” Bohn says.

During the conference, attendees will examine these advancements, reassess the field, and explore how we can adapt to or leverage them. The event will feature three sessions: Reimagining, Rethinking, and Revolutionizing, with speakers delving into each theme. Audience participation is encouraged, with lively Q&A sessions expected.

The climax will be the Revolutionize session, featuring speakers from St. Louis startup companies at the forefront of plant breeding innovation, all hailing from the St. Louis Innovation Hub. It promises to be an exciting showcase of cutting-edge ideas, Bohn says. Ultimately, the conference aims to inspire attendees with the innovative work happening at the University of Illinois and beyond.

Bohn is looking forward to showing off the facilities at the university, where there exists a thriving plant breeding program. Visitors are in for a treat.

“When you’re coming from St. Louis to the university, you might expect to see a lot of corn and soybeans, but there’s much more in store. We’ve put together a diverse program featuring various facets of agricultural innovation,” he says.

“Throughout the day, we’ll showcase national initiatives focused on advanced bioenergy and bioproduct innovation. We’ll also explore autonomous farming, environmental resilience, and soil quality at two different stops.”

You’ll get a peek into the USDA Maize Genetics Cooperation Stock Center, home to crucial genetic stocks for corn breeding, and the USDA Soybean Germplasm Collection. Additionally, the tour will highlight the CornBox, a project by some of Bohn’s colleagues which is their version of a sandbox to test innovations for digital agriculture in a live corn field. Visitors will also see the breeding programs spanning soybeans, corn, small grains, hemp, and more.

“One highlight close to my heart is our organic farming systems breeding program. We’ll also tour our student farm, featuring research on vegetable production systems and how robotics aid in managing insects. And let’s not forget about our local startup companies at the University of Illinois Research Park, showcasing their latest research and products,” Bohn adds.

Visitors will wrap up the day at Riggs Beer Company, known for using locally grown seeds and grains. Their motto, “On our farm, we grow beer,” sets the tone for a relaxed Q&A session with the brewery’s owner and team, accompanied by great food and, of course, some beer.

Of course, organizing a conference like this is no small feat; it’s a monumental task that requires careful coordination and collaboration.

“Initially, I thought it would be as simple as putting together a program and inviting speakers, but it’s far more complex than that. Many moving parts need to come together seamlessly to make it a success,” Bohn says.

The beauty lies in sharing the workload among many shoulders, ensuring that no single organization or individual bears the burden alone. The meeting is being co-hosted by Bayer Crop Science.

“Working together toward a common goal of hosting the best conference possible is a tremendous opportunity to build relationships. I truly believe that the connections we forge with our colleagues and partners at Bayer will endure beyond this event,” Bohn says.

“Working with Bayer has been eye-opening. While we often operate within the confines of academia, collaborating with a company brings a fresh perspective on what matters in the real world. It’s invigorating to explore shared interests and embark on collaborative projects together.”