Crop planting jeopardy: Temporary foreign workers delayed for Kawartha Lakes

By Roderick Benns

Local agricultural production is in jeopardy due to the delays of temporary foreign workers arriving in Kawartha Lakes, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Kelly Maloney, Kawartha Lakes’ agriculture development officer, there are 43 temporary foreign workers expected in Kawartha Lakes between now and May 12.

In fact, the Advocate has learned that the largest field vegetable operation in Kawartha Lakes won’t have a crop without their workers. The farm – which declined to be identified – grows more than 500 acres of vegetables, and has on-farm storage for over 1,500 tonnes of vegetables which are marketed to grocery stores throughout the winter, spring and into early summer, says Maloney.

The bulk of the spring and summer field work on this farm (including planting, tillage, and weeding) “is done by 30 temporary foreign workers,” Maloney says.

“They need these workers for planting by May 15 or they won’t get the crop in the field in time,” she adds.

This farm normally has workers from Mexico who arrive May 12 for work in their cabbage fields. The farm owners applied for them but have still not heard if or when they will get these workers.

The farm will likely only be allowed 14 temporary foreign workers in the first group of arrivals, as they’ve had to space out the workers’ arrival times, “and also they will need to do their isolation for two weeks once they arrive,” she adds.

“They can get the remainder (of the workers) later as they will be able to shift them to other accommodations. Because of the isolation time period they are hoping to get them two weeks earlier, as it will significantly impact their crop if they can’t start planting by May 15,” Maloney says.

While the provision is now established to allow the workers to enter Canada, there are still significant delays for workers getting across our border, says Maloney. This includes contacting the appropriate representatives in their country of origin, clearing their health status, and coordinating flights, among other things.

The agriculture development officer says that farms are required to provide accommodations for workers on a regular basis, and additionally now there must be a separate area established should any of the workers develop any virus symptoms and need self-isolation.

Farms are establishing separate accommodations for each group that arrives, so that when the first arrivals are finished their isolation period, then they can start work. If they cannot find separate isolation areas, then the whole group of foreign workers would ultimately be stuck in isolation until the last arrival in their housing unit has completed isolation, says Maloney.

“These delays can have significant impacts on businesses including costs for paying idle workers, delays in planting and ultimately a reduction food produced,” says Maloney.

In Kawartha Lakes there are five farms participating in the program with a total of 43 workers involved. The farms vary in number of workers in the program from a single worker to the large vegetable farm that employs the group of 30.

“Most of the Kawartha Lakes farms using this program are for help with field vegetable production, and one is a tree nursery. These are all very labour intensive,” says Maloney.

Maloney was in touch with all five farm owners recently and no temporary foreign workers had arrived at any of the farms yet.

Pineneedle Farms in Pontypool, led by Lucas Richardson, has two workers that were scheduled originally to arrive April 2, but have now been told they will get their workers “when ‘it is deemed safe,’” says Maloney.

The tree farm owner has re-hired some local Ontario workers who have worked with them in the past and who are now laid-off from their current jobs.

“Their heavy season is right now, packing and shipping trees and seedlings. They will be happy to have the temporary foreign workers as soon as they can get them because there is still lots of work through the summer and well into the fall when it is busy again,” says Maloney.

While some farms have found some local Ontario workers to help until the foreign workers arrive, for other farms, the timing is such that they don’t have work until mid-May.

“They are just hopeful that the workers can be scheduled to arrive on time,” says Maloney.

At least one farm said if they can’t get their workers this year, they won’t be able to plant a crop.

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