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Maintaining local food supply important in times of crisis

For many Ontarians, the sight of the first locally grown asparagus is the beginning of our local food season. I’m one of the farmers behind that first field vegetable crop of the year – my wife and I have been farming near Tillsonburg for 10 years, growing asparagus that is sold in retail stores across Canada from British Columbia to Newfoundland.
 
Asparagus is a very labour-intensive crop to grow and we rely heavily on our team of 28 seasonal international workers from Jamaica. Most of them have been working with us since the beginning and they’re an experienced and efficient crew that are an absolutely essential part of our farm.
 
Depending on the year, asparagus harvest can start in early May and this year we were planning to have our workers arrive in late April. Unfortunately, nothing about this year is normal for any of us here in Canada or people right around the world as we collectively fight against COVID-19.
 
Public health and safety are critical, but so is maintaining our food supply. That’s why we appreciate that the federal government has agreed to allow international farm workers to come to Canada this year. I’m now hoping that our workers are able to arrive on our farm by mid-April so we can complete the 14-day self-isolation requirements before asparagus harvest begins.
 
The guidelines set out by the federal government for that isolation period provide us with clear expectations about what is required. However, some jurisdictions have implemented further restrictions that jeopardize many farmers' ability to get their workers here in time.
 
The new reality of COVID-19 means farmers will be exposed to risks and costs that we haven't experienced before, but by partnering with government we can mitigate them and not bear them alone, which is in the best interest of all Canadians and our national food supply.
 
Asparagus is a perennial crop and we cut the spears as they emerge from the ground. Each time we harvest them, new spears grow back to be harvested again. On our farm, this cycle lasts about eight weeks. One bunch of asparagus is approximately one pound and our farm grows hundreds of thousands of pounds of asparagus throughout that harvest season.
 
If we let the plants grow uncontrolled, they turn into ferns and stop growing spears – and also become more susceptible to disease. If we don’t have workers at the beginning of our harvest season, we would have to start mowing the asparagus to keep that from happening and in hopes of preserving the rest of the season.
 
We also grow watermelons, and although those aren’t going to be harvested until late July, we will shortly have to make a decision about whether to put our seed in. Again, this will depend on the availability of our workers. We produce an average of one transport truck of watermelons per acre of land, fruit that is shipped coast to coast but is particularly in demand right here in Ontario.
 
I’ve been in contact with several of our international workers as they wait to hear about whether they will be able to work here this year. They’ve all spoken to me of how seriously they and the government of Jamaica are taking this. These jobs are what will support their families for the next year, but they also have a passion for Canada and a love for the farm. They feel a duty, they tell me, to get food on the table here and back home in Jamaica. 
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