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Hiring local workers for on-farm jobs isn’t as easy as it sounds

COVID-19 has turned lives upside down right around the world. People are grappling with illness and death, with separation from family and friends, business closures, job loss, and general uncertainty about what lies ahead.
 
Things are no different for farmers, but many of us who grow fruits and vegetables have the added challenge this year of trying to get our international workers here and making sure we do everything possible to keep them safe and healthy.
 
That’s not without added cost, and while we recognize that COVID-19 is causing losses and increased expenses for everyone the longer this crisis continues, we appreciate the federal government’s recent announcement of financial support for employers of seasonal agricultural workers.
 
We also appreciate government willingness to exempt international farm workers from its COVID-19 travel bans. Simply put, without the approximately 20,000 seasonal workers who come to Ontario every year to work on fruit and vegetable farms, many crops wouldn’t get planted at all or in the case of trees, vines and perennial crops like asparagus, wouldn’t be maintained or harvested.
 
One of the questions I’m asked most often is why we need foreign workers at all – especially now when so many are out of work, why don’t we just hire locals? It sounds simple enough, but like so many things in our modern world, it actually isn’t.
 
Probably the biggest misconception people have is that farm work is unskilled labour. There’s no denying that for all of us in farming, the hours are long and the work is hard. But our farms have become highly specialized, with sophisticated technologies and stringent food safety certifications.
 
And it takes skilled workers to be able to properly prune a grape vine, thin an apple tree, grade asparagus or gently harvest and handle a peach so that it arrives on the grocery story shelf free of bruises and blemishes.
 
The vast majority of seasonal farm workers in Ontario come to the same farms every year – some of the workers on my Niagara-area grape farm have been with us for more than 20 years – and they know those farms, those crops and the jobs that need to be done as well or better than we do. 
Source : OFVGA