Farmers worry about impact of border closure on seasonal workers
LONDON, ONT. -- While farm fields will soon being coming to life, what's growing for many farmers is uncertainty.
The latest steps to contain the spread of COVID-19 are adding to that uncertainty for Ontario’s biggest economic engine, agriculture.
Farmers say they still haven’t been told if the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program will continue. It’s a federal program on which many growers say they rely.
“Food is picked and harvested and cared for by humans. And if we don’t have them as part of the equation it’s hard,” says Tom Heeman with Heeman’s Nursery and Berry Farm, just east of London (20422 Nissouri Road). He’s also chair of the Berry Growers of Ontario.
Heeman says farmers are still trying to determine how border restrictions will impact their ability to bring in migrant workers.
“We need a clear path for farmers to have confidence in their operations that they can move forward. And part of that is having access to workers to get through the season.”
Heeman says having the family business along the edge of a large, urban centre like London is a distinct advantage. It gives them access to a ready work force. That’s an advantage that many other locations don’t have.
“We grow crops where the weather’s good and the soil is suitable. And as society has changed, and there’s been less and less people in the country, with programs like the Seasonal Agriculture Program, it’s designed to fill that gap.”
On Monday, Heeman delivered a letter on behalf of berry growers to federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau expressing the need for a clear direction.
He says farmers are already making provisions surrounding ensuring community safety.
“I haven’t talked to a farmer yet who doesn’t already have a plan on how they would meet isolation and quarantine procedures. There’s been a lot of forethought around that prior to the announcement of border closures.”
Heeman says the workers should already be preparing for the early crops, berries and asparagus.
He says farmers will need to know if they’re going to have those workers within the month, or crops may be put at risk.
An agreement has already been worked out for the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which brings in workers for longer stays and is primarily geared to food processing industries.