Labour short­ages costly for agri­cul­ture sec­tor

Sackville Tribune - - OPINION - BY CHRIS­TIAN MICHAUD Chris­tian Michaud is pres­i­dent of the Agricul- tu­ral Al­liance of NB.

Labour short­ages are chron­i­cally com­plex in agri­cul­ture. They have been ex­ten­sively stud­ied, but no sim­ple so­lu­tion has emerged. Farm work is sim­ply not ap­peal­ing or ac­ces­si­ble to many po­ten­tial work­ers.

There is a yawn­ing gap be­tween the kinds of work­ers needed and the kinds of work­ers avail­able. The di­ver­sity of the agri­cul­ture sec­tor re­quires a broad range of skills. This is­sue is be­com­ing more com­pli­cated as farm­ing evolves in the face of cli­mate change, eco­nomic pres­sures, mech­a­niza­tion, and a back-to-the­land move­ment which is re­viv­ing the small fam­ily farm.

Here’s where we are. Ac­cord­ing to the New Brunswick Agri­cul­tural Labour Mar­ket Fore­cast to 2025, the prov­ince, in 2014, em­ployed 7,500 peo­ple in the agri­cul­ture sec­tor. The field fruit and veg­etable in­dus­try was the largest em­ployer (22 per cent of the labour force), fol­lowed by tree fruit and vine (16 per cent) and dairy (14 per cent). Some 400 jobs were un­filled, cost­ing the sec­tor $7 mil­lion in lost sales. The sit­u­a­tion goes be­yond our provin­cial bor­ders, it is es­ti­mated that un­filled jobs across the coun­try cost $1.5 bil­lion in lost sales in 2014.

The labour short­age hits some in­dus­tries harder than oth­ers. The field fruit and veg­etable in­dus­try cur­rently has one of the largest labour gaps in the sec­tor, and that gap is pre­dicted to widen the fastest of any agri­cul­ture in­dus­try. The dairy in­dus­try, on the other hand, will see its labour gap shrink sig­nif­i­cantly over the same time pe­riod.

While de­mand for labour will de­cline over­all in this prov­ince, the labour pool will shrink even faster. Ac­cord­ing to re­search con­ducted by the Cana­dian Agri­cul­ture Hu­man Re­source Coun­cil, a com­bi­na­tion of sta­ble pro­duc­tion growth in some key in­dus­tries and in­creased pro­duc­tiv­ity in oth­ers will re­duce the de­mand for labour in New Brunswick from now un­til 2025. But by then there will be 800 fewer do­mes­tic work­ers in the prov­ince’s agri­cul­tural labour pool.

With the sup­ply of work­ers shrink­ing faster than the sec­tor’s de­mand for labour, the prov­ince is ex­pected to see a widen­ing gap be­tween the avail­able work­force and the sec­tor’s labour needs, re­sult­ing in sig­nif­i­cantly more jobs go­ing un­filled.

Field fruit

Two key fac­tors are re­spon­si­ble for re­duc­ing New Brunswick’s agri­cul­tural labour sup­ply: re­tire­ment and the de­creas­ing num­ber of young peo­ple in the prov­ince. In 2011, 57 per cent of our agri­cul­ture work­force was 45 years of age or older. The num­ber of young peo­ple en­ter­ing the field is ex­pected to de­crease by 12 per cent over the next decade, one of the most rapid de­clines in the sec­tor in Canada.

So how can we ad­dress this grow­ing dis­par­ity? There are lim­ited sources of farm work­ers; if they are not home grown, they must be re­cruited else­where.

Cur­rently, New Brunswick’s re­liance on for­eign work­ers is low; only 1.4 per cent of its work­force is for­eign, com­pared to a na­tional av­er­age of 12 per cent. This is due in part to the com­plex­ity of the reg­u­la­tions around the hir­ing of for­eign work­ers, which is par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing for smaller farm­ing op­er­a­tions with di­verse com­modi­ties and those who do not have sig­nif­i­cant ad­min­is­tra­tive in­fras­truc­tures. The NB Agri­cul­tural Al­liance has rec­om­mended changes in govern­ment pro­grams and pro­cesses which will ex­pe­dite and sim­plify the move­ment of work­ers, such as multi-year ap­pli­ca­tions for re­gions with high and chronic labour short­ages. Re-defin­ing the pa­ram­e­ters of pri­mary agri­cul­ture is also im­por- tant; re­strict­ing for­eign work­ers to a spe­cific com­mod­ity cre­ates ma­jor ob­sta­cles for mixed farms, which are the ma­jor­ity in this prov­ince. Cur­rent govern­ment pro­grams for for­eign work­ers are not a good fit for much of New Brunswick agri­cul­ture.

In­creas­ing the num­ber of New Brunswick­ers who choose farm work re­mains a chal­lenge, but ef­forts are be­ing made in sev­eral di­rec­tions. One is to train un­em­ployed work­ers for agri­cul­tural jobs. An­other is to at­tract farm­ers and new en­trants to farm­ing from other re­gions by of­fer­ing them ac­cess to land, train­ing and sup­port to get started. The third is to pro­vide agri­cul­ture-linked ac­tiv­i­ties to the cur­ricu­lum which com­bines the­ory and prac­tice for all school grades through the Ag in the Class­room pro­gram and for com­mu­nity col­lege stu­dents. These ini­tia­tives come from non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions who rec­og­nize both the eco­nomic and so­cial value of farm­ing and food pro­duc­tion.

Ig­nor­ing on­go­ing labour short­ages is short-sighted; it jeop­ar­dizes fu­ture ex­pan­sion of the sec­tor. The agri­cul­ture in­dus­try is the sec­ond most im­por­tant nat­u­ral re­source-based con­trib­u­tor to our provin­cial econ­omy af­ter the en­ergy sec­tor. Farm cash re­ceipts have in­creased by 11 per cent since 2012. Agri­cul­ture and food man­u­fac­tur­ing ex­ports (ex­clud­ing seafood) have shown an al­most $200 mil­lion in­crease since 2012.

The agri­cul­ture in­dus­try is at the heart of ru­ral New Brunswick, pro­vid­ing some 13,000 jobs in pri­mary agri­cul­ture and food man­u­fac­tur­ing. This is a sun­rise in­dus­try with a bright fu­ture if its labour is­sues can be ad­dressed to es­tab­lish farm­ing as a sus­tain­able driver of progress in this prov­ince.

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