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Help Canada Grow addresses migrant worker uncertainty on Ontario farms with local labour

As the start of Ontario’s spring farming season draws closer, an initiative aimed at addressing labour problems in the farming industry is sprouting out of Norfolk County.

Help Canada Grow is connecting locals who are looking for work with farmers who are worried temporary seasonal workers won’t be in Canada — or out of their mandatory two week quarantine — by the time crops need planting or harvesting.

The business germinated at the start of April and co-founder Steve Martel, one of four entrepreneurs behind it, said they fielded more than 2,400 worker applications in the first two weeks.

“We’ve already started hiring a bit for internal needs,” he explained. “We’ve got a group of individuals who will be joining us to screen calls, start doing one-on-one interviews, start reaching out and catering to farmers as well.”

But the number of people they’ve put to work is nothing close to the number of applications they’ve received. There’s a screening process to determine whether people have experience, reliable transportation and realistic expectations, said Martel.

Once that’s all sorted out, he said only 50 per cent of people show up at the farm on the morning they’re supposed to start.  

Help Canada Grow had placed about 100 people at ginseng farms so far, where farmers need to install tarps so that their crops don’t get burned by heavy sunlight, said Martel.

But there’s also a big push is to get workers lined up for May 4 for asparagus season in southwestern Ontario.

Stalks of asparagus ready to to be shipped at Smith Fruit Company in London, Ont. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The plight of the asparagus farms

Asparagus is one of the first fresh vegetables harvested in Ontario every spring.

Bernie Solymar, the executive director of Asparagus Farmers of Ontario, said about 70 per cent of Ontario’s asparagus comes from Norfolk Country where the number of migrant workers has been “severely limited” by added guidelines from the local medical officer of health.

Only three workers are allowed in a single bunkhouse during the mandatory 14 day isolation period in Haldimand and Norfolk counties.

“We have bunkhouses that house four people and we have bunkhouses that house up to 50 people. So to put three people in a 50-man bunkhouse, it just doesn’t make any sense. It’s illogical,” said Solymar.

He said most asparagus farms only have about 50 per cent of their workforce right now and he knows of at least one farmer scratching this year’s harvest “because he just can’t handle it.”

And although it’s great to have local workers available, Solymar said it isn’t a perfect solution.

Migrant workers from Mexico maintain social distancing as they wait to be transported to Quebec farms after arriving at Trudeau Airport Tuesday April 14, 2020 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

“The offshore workers, most of them have been working on the same farm for many years. Some have been there 20, 25 years on a particular farm. It is highly trained labour,” he explained.

“To bring in locals, have to train them, and they’re never going to be as efficient as offshore.”

‘This is not just going fruit picking’

Help Canada Grow has heard from nearly 50 farms and has been receiving a wide variety of work applications ranging from stay-at-home moms to people in the farming industry who are without work, said Martel. 

“This is a real business. There’s some proper training that has to happen and if it’s not done properly, it could ruin the crops for years to come,” he explained, adding that families are still allowed to apply so long as kids are over the age of 14.

“This is not just going fruit picking for an hour and then you’re done. You’re on your knees, you’re bent, you’re crouched over for hours on end and it’s very physically demanding.”

Help Canada Grow started with a focus on Norfolk Country, but has grown to cover farms in the entire province. Martel said they’ve developed a system, some parts of it automated, to handle the volume of applications.

The Ministry of Agriculture also offered them a subsidy to help cover their growth, he added.

“We’re in a situation where there’s no cash flow at all, we’re only getting paid three weeks after we deliver our first service.”

But one of the main goals of all four co-founders — the others are Martel’s wife, Crystal, and Mike and Krista Timmerman — is to save the farming industry from a labour shortage, he explained.

“I have businesses in the U.S. that I had to put on pause, Mike has businesses in North America that he also had to put on pause. So the choice is: do we just sit around and do absolutely nothing? Or do we contribute?”

He added, “If farmers do not reap their crops this year, there will be no food on our shelves, and if there’s no food on our shelves, we’re going to have to import, we’re going to have to figure something out, but the prices will skyrocket.”

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