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New report highlights gaps and vulnerabilities in Canada’s agri-food workforce due to COVID-19

Apr 27, 2021

A truth that is deemed to be universal, is the fact that the most valuable resource of any business is the people. Regardless of technology, automation or other means, human capital remains essential in ensuring the continued production of high-quality food, fibre and fuel. The entire food value chain relies on people to fill planting, production, quality control, processing and distribution roles to keep the agri-food system strong and viable.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the struggles of Ontario’s agri-food sector to attract and retain people to fill job vacancies. The Canadian Agriculture Human Resource Council (CAHRC) identified key vulnerabilities within the industry as part of its recent report titled, Understanding the Effects of COVID-19 on Canada’s Agriculture Workforce. The report offers key findings from research gathered over the past year, identifying weaknesses of current labour strategies within the industry. The data collected to compile the report came from over 450 farm operators across Canada between November 2020 and January 2021.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) continues to prioritize workforce challenges and address the issue of labour shortages within the agri-food sector. This work is being done by supporting organizations that promote agri-food careers to the next generation, developing and launching the Feeding Your Future initiative, and lobbying the government for COVID-19 regulations that ensure essential seasonal workers and temporary foreign workers (TFWs) arrive safely and securely to Ontario farm businesses. Feeding Your Future aims to connect Ontario agri-food employers with Ontario residents looking for meaningful jobs.

Canada faced record levels of unemployment within the first few months of the public health crisis with around three million Canadians losing their jobs between February and April of last year. Still, agriculture employers struggled to find workers as 41% of employers surveyed could not find enough employees to fill their vacancies, and 86% of respondents believed this to be a direct result of COVID-19.

The delayed arrival or absence of temporary foreign workers in 2020 was the first shock to the agri-food sector as it left many farm employers scrambling to source local labour on short notice to ensure the planting and harvesting of spring crops was completed. It is estimated that employers were unable to fill 1 in 5 TFWS they would usually employ.

Canadian farmers, especially those in the labour-intensive horticulture industry, have become reliant on essential seasonal and foreign workers. These workers come back year after year and bring expertise that only comes with experience. And yes, at times there is lack of domestic interest in farm jobs. The challenges of getting TFWs across the border was tremendous last spring and have certainly remained an issue in 2021. Additionally, providing accommodations to meet all the new regulations, requirements and extensive documentation became a significant financial and red tape barrier for many employers to secure the arrival of foreign workers.

Rural location, seasonality, wages and physical requirements are all key barriers to local recruitment. To support our garlic and the pork business, we have relied on a combination of local labour and contract farm workers. We did experience labour shortages this past year with our garlic harvest.

To fill gaps in our workforce, we were able to recruit local high school students. This experience was good overall and gave us hope for the upcoming future workforce. A number of these students will be joining us again this year. However, when hiring students or local labour a steep learning curve exists with the potential of a high turnover rate, impacting productivity.

Lower productivity, which is a direct result of labour challenges, has resulted in an estimated total loss of $2.9 billion in sales for farm businesses across Canada. More than 60% of respondents reported production delays which impacts the whole food system. For our pork business, we are very dependent on our processing plant to take weekly shipments. Plant closures because of COVID this past year caused havoc throughout the entire food chain. We have noticed however, that local sales are increasing because Ontarians have an appetite for eating local, want to know where their food comes from, and are making more meals at home.

The survey also noted that over 40% of employers expect a delay or termination of investments in their farm business. This poses a major issue because a lack of investment or expansion has the potential to impact the economic growth of farms and the agri-food industry

According to the data, the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) was relied on by 47% of employers. Farm businesses had to learn to adapt to virtual sales and curbside pick-up which has been met with internet connectivity and broadband issues in rural locations.

During COVID, an increased demand for local food means that more consumers are consciously choosing to purchase Ontario made products. This is welcome news for producers, but we cannot grow and raise our products without human capital. As employers adapt to the future and a new growing season, 53% of respondents are concerned about finding enough workers for the new year. Therefore, we must continue to invest in ways that attract and retain employees to continue to grow the industry.

The report concluded that industry stakeholders play an important role in attracting Canadian workers by promoting jobs in agriculture, improving broadband connectivity and providing education for Canadians who do not have a direct connection to the agri-food sector. Together, we can help support employers from field-to-fork to fill labour shortages and encourage our youth to consider a career in the dynamic and innovative agri-food sector.

Source: OFA