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Growing local crops with skilled labour critical during times of crisis

I’m the fourth generation of my family to live and work here on E Z Grow Farms in Norfolk County, named for my grandfather Ed Zamecnik who started the farm in 1935. We’re Ontario’s largest commercial wholesale producer of high bush blueberries; selling into large Ontario grocery stores with our products hitting market in July and August.
We are also a domestic and international propagator (grower) for the greenhouse business in Canada and of strawberry plants so even if you see strawberries in grocery stores that are labelled product of Georgia, Florida or other US states, the plants likely came from our farm in Ontario.
On a farm our size, labour is a critical issue and our staff are essential to our ability to produce local food. We’ve been using the Seasonal Agricultural Worker program almost since its inception in the 1960’s. Each year, we bring in over 100 skilled workers from Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Mexico. That’s over and above the 150 local residents that work for us in the summer too. Blueberries are best picked by people, not machines.
These seasonal workers are absolutely critical to producing food in Ontario. Many have been coming to our farm annually for decades and are close friends. Some even used to babysit me when I was a kid. They’re not only like family to me but our food system and country’s food security depends on them.
There’s not an industry or Canadian family currently untouched by the COVID-19 pandemic. On our farm, it’s this skilled work force that is directly caught in the crisis. Of the 40 workers that should now be here, only 6 have arrived and we’re not sure when or if the rest will be able to get here. We’re in active communications as a group using the social media tool What’s App. It’s the same group where we collectively share Christmas wishes and family updates but now it’s entirely focused on this pandemic.
Blueberries are a true perennial crop and must be pruned in the spring. If not, the plants will have too much growth and too many branches which will negatively affect their fruit for both this year’s crop and next. We also can’t count on imports to fill our grocery stores if there’s a local crop failure. Fruitgrowing states south of the border are also in the midst of a COVID crisis and a labour shortage.
It’s also not just our crops that are in jeopardy. After our spring planting and pruning is finished, many of our seasonal workers temporarily move to employment at a neighbouring asparagus farm. That spring crop is grown and harvested in an extremely tight window of about five weeks long and those smaller farmers rely on us to bring in the labour to help with their harvest before the employees return for summer work on our farm.
We appreciate the federal government’s recognition that these workers do provide an essential service on Canadian farms. What we’re struggling with though is the rationale that our local health unit is proposing to require for social distancing practices for our employees – using rules not in place for other returning travellers and quarantine distances that make no sense.
The health and safety of all Canadians and our work force is critical but farms aren’t like other workplaces. We’ve likely been self-isolating before that term was even known! Our farm is remote and our fields are large so our employees could easily work while still respecting self-isolation and distancing rules. We’ve proposed setting up quarantine zones in the fields where employees could work in small micro groups, hundreds of feet away from each other. But proposed restrictions will have them sitting indoors, in their bunk houses, for their 14 day quarantine periods, even if they continue to feel healthy. And that’s even if they can get here.
Here in Norfolk County, we’re hopeful that we can work with government at all levels to get them here as soon as possible but the window is quickly narrowing. All of the summer fruits and vegetables we take for granted in July, August and September are aggressively at risk. We know that consumers want local products and we hope that the situation can be rectified in time to get these essential employees here.
Source : OFVGA