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An Ont. operation’s COVID-19 story

An Ont. operation’s COVID-19 story

Nature Fresh Farms released a documentary about the COVID-19 outbreak on their farm and the impact on their workers and crops

By Jackie Clark
Staff Writer

Nature Fresh Farms has released a documentary called The Hardest Harvest, which highlights the importance of their temporary foreign workers, and tells the story of their struggle with a COVID-19 outbreak in the summer of 2020. The company produces greenhouse tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers in Leamington, Ont.

After a largely asymptomatic outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, the farm was shut down at the end of June. The cucumber crop had been ready for harvest on the day of the shutdown, and by the time workers could return, the plants were dead. In total, 7.8 million pounds (3.5 million kilograms) of produce was lost, according to the film.

“The main objective (of the documentary) was to get the true story out there,” Peter Quiring, the president of Nature Fresh Farms, told “I wanted the public to know what the true story was.”

The other motivation for producing the film was to bring to light the irresponsible management of the situation, he added. “The cost of that shutdown was probably around $15 million.… It’s going to take us years to recover from that.”

Nature Fresh Farms employs 600 employees, including about 360 migrant workers. In the documentary, workers share some of their personal stories about what it was like to seek out work in Canada. Many are working to support families back home.

Workers come from Mexico, Jamaica, Guatemala and Honduras, explains John Ketler, the vice-president of Nature Fresh Farms, in the film. “We see people coming back for many, many years.”

When the pandemic arrived in Canada and restrictions were put in place, farm management installed automated banking machines on the farm and bought groceries for workers, so they would not have to leave the farm, Quiring explained.

However, pressure grew to conduct mass testing. Health-care workers tested 575 employees and, in total, 199 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed. However, only 12 workers were symptomatic, and none severe enough for hospitalization, Quiring said.

“Effectively, the farm was shut down” on June 30, he said. “The health unit (forbade) anyone to enter the farm.”

Workers were evacuated and relocated to hotels to isolate, and the farmers were no longer allowed to deliver food.

In the documentary, worker Javier Rivas Castellanos was interviewed. He contracted symptomatic COVID-19. When he first started feeling sick, he still went to work, he explained. He didn’t want to tell anyone he was feeling ill because the opportunity to work and make a good impression was important to him.

After the farm shut down, regulations initially indicated that asymptomatic workers would be able to go back to work. However, then the story changed, the documentary reports.

“We were told from the government that asymptomatic positive workers could return back to work and then we had to go back and tell (the workers) that that was not true any longer,” Matt Quiring, director of sales at Nature Fresh Farms, said in the film. “That trust, that rapport, that respect that they have for us,” was damaged.

Temporary foreign workers need full support from their employers, especially working in a different country during such a stressful time, he explained. And those workers are essential to Canada’s food supply.

“Locals will not do this job. Without the migrant work force, we can effectively kiss our fruits and vegetables goodbye,” he added.

The film captured the day when employees were able to return to the greenhouses to work. Many workers expressed emotion and gladness to be back, however, they also appeared dismayed at the wasted produce.

Worker Gervacio Estrada expressed the sense of ownership he has over the vegetables he works on at the farm. He was upset that they were wasted.

“Your heart hurts, even if you think (the crop) is not mine, it’s the boss’,” he explained.

The situation could have been handled differently, said Peter Quiring. “It did not need to happen.”

Nature Fresh Farms’ story may help inform lessons learned to better respond to crises in the future, in a way that supports safety, business continuity, and worker and public trust. 

“Government policy will be shaped in the future based on what those folks in government understand about agriculture,” he said. “We need to try to shape good policy going forward based on accurate information.”

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