Prioritizing orchard blocks and mechanization offer options for producers trying to make the most of their limited labour resources
By Jackie Clark
Travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have presented labour challenges in several sectors of the ag industry, including orchard crops. Federal ag minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said that by the end of April, 22,000 workers had arrived in Canada, compared to 25,500 in 2019, in a statement on May 12. Though the government and industry are working hard to connect farmers with the labour they need, many growers are being forced to find creative solutions to a growing season with fewer hands on deck.
“With respect to tree fruit production, it’s challenging because they are very labour intensive crops,” Kathryn Carter, fruit crop specialist with OMAFRA, told Farms.com.
Pruning, thinning and harvesting of these crops is often done entirely by hand.
This year “in some cases (growers are) getting a lot less labour than they would usually expect,” she said.
To adapt, producers are “evaluating what they do and prioritizing.”
This might involve “looking at blocks and deciding which are the most important that they prune. Maybe blocks that are older that aren’t producing as much and they were thinking of pulling anyway, leaving those until later on, so that way (growers) can see how much time they have and return to them later,” Carter explained.
When pruning, workers “can look at cutting some of the bigger branches out and doing the big stuff first and then coming back later on and doing some fine-tuning,” if they have more time or more hands on deck later on in the season, she added.
OMAFRA and researchers like Dr. John Cline from the University of Guelph have also been promoting the Darwin thinner and other mechanized thinners. Before now, many Ontario producers haven’t been interested in more mechanization because of the orchard structure.
“There’s been more interest this year because of the fact that there haven’t been the workers available,” Carter said. Mechanical hedgers are also an option.
“Platforms may be another tool as well,” Carter said. A worker can stand on a platform and “do their pruning, thinning or harvesting as the machine moves through the orchard which reduces the need for ladder work which can save some time.”
In some cases, the spring weather has given growers some more time to find labour solutions.
“April and May have so far been very cool, so that’s kind of slowed things down a bit and that may provide a benefit for growers,” Carter said.
Light frosts may have also acted as a natural thinning process, she added.
“The adverse is that if you get too much (frost) then you obviously can lose the crop and then it has a significant negative economic impact on the grower as well.”
The majority of growers, as is the nature of those who work in agriculture, remain optimistic.
“I think they’re a very resourceful group and I think they do a great job of working together. I’ve actually heard of growers that are sharing resources,” Carter said. “In many cases they’re already doing great things, they’re very creative.”
This year may also spur some longer-term changes in the fruit crop industry.
“Moving forward, it gives a bit more of a push to revisit the need for some research on looking at alternatives for ways of reducing labour in the future,” Carter said.
Those solutions aren’t helpful for growers this year, but the current challenges are getting industry stakeholders in the mindset of optimizing labour.
Previously, “there hasn’t really been a general push toward more high-density production and shifting towards different training systems that have less labour, just because labour has always been available,” Carter said.
Labour challenges may provide the impetus to develop more high-density systems.
“As canopies change and as the structures of the orchards change, I think that will open up more options for mechanization,” she said.
To read more about specific adaptations for peach production with less labour, click here.
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