Welcome back to our seasonal farm labourers
MANY PEOPLE BELIEVE
THE shortage of farm labour is a recent development, and blame it on young people who don’t want to do hard work. But it’s hardly new. As far back as the early 1960s, the farm sector recognized it was running out of seasonal labour. By the middle of that decade, it was experiencing a severe shortage.
So in 1966, the Foreign Agricultural Research Management Services, which has the convenient and enviable acronym FARMS, was established.
It administers something called the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.
FARMS connects formally with Jamaica, Barbados, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago and the Eastern Caribbean to bring workers to Canada. Supplementary seasonal farm labour is hired from partner countries only if farmers can’t find domestic workers willing to take the same jobs. And usually, they can’t. The program has been a success. With planting season approaching in Ontario, and seasonal farm workers – 18,000 of them in this province alone – are start-
ing to arrive. About 85 per cent of them are returnees from previous years.
And economically, it’s no wonder they want to return, even though it means being apart from their families for several months. Seasonal workers can earn as much as 10 times or more working here than they could in their own countries, if indeed they can find work there.
Seasonal workers’ contributions are immense. They provide so much support for labour-intensive farm production, crops that need hands-on care, particularly fruit and vegetables. About 1,450 farms will employ these seasonal workers this year.
In fact, labour market research by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council said the program is the key reason the horticultural industry is thriving.
“If we want to continue having access to high-quality, fresh, local produce in Ontario, we need the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program to continue connecting farmers with the workers they need,” says FARMS president Ken Forth.
On farms across the province, producers are chomping at the bit to get onto their fields. The temptation is huge when the weather starts getting warm.
But they’ll have to sit on their hands for a while longer.
Dale Cowan, a senior agronomist at the AGRIS and Wanstead Coops, urges farmers to wait for the soil to warm, then plant as soon as possible if the forecast is favourable.
“A lot of people are worried that because of the cold weather we’re now on schedule for late planting, but technically, we’re not late,” he says. “We’ve had no usable heat, and the soil temperature is too low yet for planting, so although the weather has been cold, we’re not late.”
Farmers know a warm seedbed is needed for corn and soybeans. They’re called base 10 crops, meaning they need soil temperatures of at least 10 degrees C and rising for best germination.
If soil cools off after seed is sown, germination slows and disease and insects can wreak havoc on development.
That’s what happened last year. Many producers got off to a quick start thanks to a warm spell in early May. But then the weather cooled and turned nasty for weeks, meaning corn didn’t germinate properly. Some had to be replanted in late May, and gains that could have been realized from early seeding were lost.
The immediate forecast for Ontario is improving. But as of late last week the soil temperature was only six degrees C.
So let’s hope for wind and warm temperatures to dry out fields, and welcome the seasonal workers who’ll be helping grow our food.
Riverside PS students Levi and Jude Adams were out last week to help raise money for their school. The fundraiser was run in cooperation with the Elmira Circle K store and gas station.