Labour shortages persist, hort sector says

Horticultural Council warns sector output will drop for lack of workers, support

Ottawa — The Canadian Horticultural Council warns the federal government is using inaccurate numbers to describe how many temporary foreign workers are currently in the country.

During a virtual meeting of the Commons standing committee on agriculture and agri-food, CHC president Brian Gilroy said food security continues to be threatened as a result of labour shortages exacerbated by COVID-19.

“The government has been using statistics in its briefings that do not reflect the situation on the ground,” he said, suggesting Ottawa is combining numbers from different months to paint a rosier picture.

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Federal officials – including Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau – have reported in recent weeks that, compared to last year, 86 per cent of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) arrived in March. The government has also reported 10,066 workers arrived in April.

But Gilroy, a southwestern Ontario fruit grower, said that in his province, about 78 per cent of workers have arrived this year compared to last year, while only 50 per cent have arrived in Quebec and 54 per cent in B.C.

He warned the committee he is “very concerned” at the number of workers being processed to arrive in May and June.

“There is still a critical shortage of workers on some farms,” he said, noting workers had to be paid while taking part in their mandated quarantine and airfare costs were more expensive than usual.

Those challenges compounded difficulties stemming from countries supplying foreign workers. The Guatemalan and Mexican governments in particular were slow to get workers processed.

Gilroy said the $1,500 in financial support from the federal government for each temporary foreign worker arriving from abroad is difficult to access for many farmers.

Despite $50 million being made available by Ottawa for the funding, Gilroy said the deadline to submit an application – and the paperwork required — make the money difficult to get.

The council is proposing the money should instead be administered by the provinces, arguing those governments are a better vehicle to move the support more quickly and efficiently to producers.

Like other representatives from the agriculture sector who have appeared before the committee, Gilroy criticized the government’s reliance on business risk management (BRM) programs as one of the main mechanisms to combat the impacts of the pandemic.

He said the programs are “ineffective for most farmers” and said that it is difficult for even “devastating scenarios” to trigger payments.

The lack of support and continued challenges brought on by the pandemic is resulting in some farmers reducing the number of crops they are planting by around 20 per cent.

Gilroy was joined on the virtual meeting by representatives from other groups including the United Potato Growers of Canada.

That organization’s general manager, Kevin MacIsaac, said $105 million in excess potatoes remain across Canada. Totalling 760 million pounds, $92 million worth of potatoes are for processing and $13 million are in seed potatoes.

MacIsaac warned those potatoes have a shelf life and action must be taken.

“The issue is, it’s got to be done right now,” he said. “It’s a task that can be done, it’s a costly one to do.”

— D.C. Fraser reports for Glacier FarmMedia from Ottawa.

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