B.C.’s agriculture industry is facing a major worker shortage this year as the long-term ramifications of COVID-19 take hold.
The pandemic has triggered a shortfall of 6,000 to 8,000 seasonal agricultural labourers provincewide, threatening a backlog in local food production.
“COVID-19 has meant there is no such thing as business as usual — it has disrupted the workforce,” said Agriculture Minister Lana Popham at a news conference Thursday.
That’s why the B.C. government has announced it is launching an online job portal to match farmers with workers in an attempt to fast-track hiring.
The website, called the B.C. Farm, Fish and Food Job Connector, is designed to be a quick and easy tool to attract new employees in time for the summer.
B.C. berry growers are facing a serious labour shortage this season due to COVID-19– Parm Bains, owner of Westberry Farms
“We recognize the workforce challenges … and are helping to address the need to establish a secure agricultural labour force so we can generate economic activity and maintain food security in our communities,” Popham said.
The site will connect employers to agriculture, food processing, aquaculture and marine fisheries jobs posted on Work BC, industry sites and the B.C. Food and Beverage websites.
“I was on a Zoom call with the mushroom industry yesterday, and they are in fact scaling back because they’re not able to access the labour they need,” said Popham.
Farmers desperate for labour
Much of the labour crunch is related to COVID-caused delays of temporary foreign workers coming to B.C.
The province is trying to attract more domestic employees by offering advanced training for those with little experience.
“For example, in the Okanagan we do have a need for labour in the vineyards and we don’t necessarily want someone right off the street walking into a vineyard and practicing viticulture skills, so they will need some training there,” Popham said.
B.C. farms, ranches, seafood and food processing companies generated a record $15 billion in revenue in 2018.
With the summer season quickly approaching, farmers are getting nervous about being able to fill the significant coronavirus-shaped hole in their workforce.
Terry Michell, the owner of Michell Farm in Saanichton on Vancouver Island, says he has only a quarter of the temporary foreign workers he usually has on hand.
“There has been no farmer I have talked to that has not been affected. Everyone has been affected by a shortage of skilled labour,” Michell said.
However, he’s not sure locals will be able to handle the workload.
“It’s not a job for everyone,” he said. “If you’re not used to it, it doesn’t go very well with your body.”
But as crunch time comes, he needs the labour.
“When the crops are ready, they have to be picked — you can’t just wait a couple of days to find someone to come and pick them,” he said.
David Geen, a cherry farmer in Lake Country in B.C.’s Okanagan, says most of his temporary foreign worker force is here, but delayed due to difficulties getting flights to Canada and because of the 14-day quarantine order.
He has concerns over what will happen when it comes to harvest time, including processing and packing.
“We typically hire locals to work at our packing plant, and the number of people that are applying is down very significantly from previous years,” Geen said. “I think it’s difficult when the CERB cheque is at hand. It’s difficult to recruit people to come and work.”
The site already has 600 postings for crop and seafood harvesters, food processing and farm workers, agrologists, heavy machinery operators and marketing specialists.
Jobs are available in more than 30 communities in the Fraser Valley, the Okanagan, Metro Vancouver, Vancouver Island, the Kootenays and northern B.C.