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Hort. industry faces COVID-19 challenges

Hort. industry faces COVID-19 challenges

Greenhouse vegetable and flower growers in Canada are facing workforce and market obstacles 

By Jackie Clark
Staff Writer
Farms.com

The horticultural industry in Ontario is facing serious obstacles, including both labour and market challenges, as growers navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Producers need support to develop strategies to protect and perhaps pivot their operations, Jan VanderHout, vice president of the Canadian Horticulture Council, told Farms.com.

“Canadians and the government really need to think about where our food will come from this summer,” VanderHout said. “I think the people of Canada and the government of Canada really need to say that (the greenhouse industry) is critical infrastructure. We need to have this food production capacity in place.”

Though farmers have been recognized provincially as essential workers, and the implication exists nationally, some policies don’t reflect that distinction, VanderHout explained.

“Right now, they’re saying that if you have a worker on your farm who is identified as possibly having the COVID-19 virus, you have to isolate him or her and his or her coworkers, basically shut your farm down, which is just not doable,” he said. “When a nurse gets sick, they don’t shut the hospital down.”

Instead, preventative protocol and isolation of sick workers should be prioritized to maintain timely management of horticultural crops while still protecting workers, VanderHout said.

“I think the way to protect the health and safety of the workers in the event of someone having symptoms would be to isolate that worker only,” he said.

Each farm operator is developing protocol for cases of illness among temporary foreign workers, based on the housing he or she has available. Producers are also determining preventative measures at their facilities.

“Hand washing is encouraged and strictly enforced. Before and after (workers) eat, between jobs, basically as often as you can,” VanderHout said. At his operation, he is providing hand sanitizers and arranging work and breaks so staff can maintain a two-metre distance whenever possible.

“That applies to both our foreign workers but also our local workers,” he added.

For producers who are still waiting on seasonal workers to arrive, delays have “the potential to be catastrophic. The longer we wait, the bigger the problem,” VanderHout said. “When the crop is ready it needs to be harvested. I think the first crop that we harvest in Ontario is asparagus, and it’s not that far away anymore … Getting those workers here so they can observe their two-week isolation period is going to be critical so, when the harvest needs to happen, they can get right on it.”

Flower growers in Ontario are facing the additional challenge of the disruption of their seasonal markets.

“They are going to be, almost without exception, dumping their entire Easter inventory, and probably their Mother’s Day inventory. … Those are huge events for some growers, their greenhouses are full of plants that are just not going to have a market,” VanderHout explained.

“All the expenses have been carried and there’s this huge issue of not being able to sell the crop,” he added.

Some producers have been looking to find solutions by transitioning their greenhouses to growing food.

“Greenhouse growers are, by nature, innovative,” Vanderhout said. Producers making changes will have to “do it on (their) own dime, because none of the funding models are retroactive. (Growers) don’t have six months to do an application and wait and see if it’s approved.”

Transitioning to traditional greenhouse vegetables can take months and is an expensive process. Some producers could grow potted vegetables, but uncertainty exists about the demand for those products.

Most flower growers are “more likely to find crops (like lettuce) that they can almost immediately (produce) in their greenhouses,” VanderHout said. “The hope is that things turn around and growers can return to business as usual in the fall.”

Regardless of what strategy flower producers choose, they need support.

“I think it’s important to maintain the viability of those farms. Growers may need financial support to keep their farms alive, even to transition to food production. After losing their Easter and possibly Mothers’ Day inventory because of lack of sales, growers are in a cash flow crunch,” VanderHout said.

Consumers in the province may be able to contribute by increasing demand. “Buying some flowers to brighten (someone’s) day would help,” he said.

AgCareers.com is providing free online job postings for temporary seasonal positions. Click here to read more.

SeventyFour\iStock\Getty Images Plus photo

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