The farm labour side of local food

Ontario Conservative Leader Tim Hudak announced this spring that, if elected, he’d make convicted provincial prisoners work to clean up Ontario’s highways.

According to a story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a variation on this theme was recently launched in Georgia, where teams of probationers are working on fruit and vegetable farms.

Many farm workers there don’t have legal status and with a new law cracking down on illegal labour, many no longer come to the state looking for employment as they used to.

Fruit and vegetable production is very labour-intensive, as the delicate nature of many of its crops means they can’t be harvested by machines. The shortage of farm labour prompted Georgia’s governor to offer unemployed offenders on probation jobs working on fruit and vegetable farms.

So far, according to reports, the experiment is yielding mixed results — with many probationers unwilling or unable to stick with the labour-intensive field work. It remains to be seen whether the program will have longevity.

Harvesting asparagus by hand

Farm labour is also a problem here in Ontario, especially in horticulture. We have an extensive fruit and vegetable sector – so who is planting the cabbages, harvesting the asparagus, picking the strawberries and pruning the peach trees here in Ontario?

If Canadian farm employers can’t find suitable employees here, they can turn to the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, which had its start in 1966 when a group of 264 Jamaican workers arrived in Ontario to harvest apples.

This specialized program is open only to workers from Mexico, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados and the eastern Caribbean islands, and is governed by formal, four-way employment agreements between the worker, employer, foreign government and the government of Canada.

Workers are eligible for the same health coverage and Canada Pension Plan and Employment Insurance benefits as Canadian workers are.

The same minimum hourly wage rates apply as for Canadian workers doing the same job, and many earn a much higher rate. In fact, I’m told what they can make working on Canadian farms far exceeds what they would be able to earn during the same time in their home countries.

I’ve heard from some farmers that, for their workers, a job in Canada means being able to build a better house, enjoy better healthcare and send children to high school, college or university.

About 20,000 workers come to Canada every year as part of this program — and more than 85 per cent of workers are requested back by their farm employers annually. Many have been with the same farmers for more than 20 years and become involved in their adopted communities through volunteering and being part of local service clubs and church groups.

For farmers, the program means a steady, reliable work force — something that is crucial in an industry that deals with perishable products. A labour disruption at a critical point during the growing season could spell disaster for farmers and have long-term negative consequences for fruit and vegetable production in Ontario.

Strawberries will rot in the fields if they’re not harvested at just the right time and, let’s be honest; we consumers are known to be a demanding, picky lot. We want only the best, so if there’s even the smallest imperfection, produce is rejected outright or farmers are paid less for it.

That’s why the farming community quietly heaved a collective sigh of relief at a recent 8-to1 Supreme Court of Canada decision upholding Ontario’s Agricultural Employees’ Protection Act and denying farm workers the right to unionize.

The diversity of locally grown food available to us here in Ontario is breathtaking. It’s probably fair to say that most of us likely have little understanding of the amount of work it takes to grow it, harvest it and get it from the fields to our table. As a consumer, I tip my proverbial hat to those folks — regardless of who it is doing the work.

Note: this column was first printed in the Guelph Mercury on June 29, 2011.

Asparagus harvest image courtesy of Ontario Agriculture Photo Library

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