National Newswatch

Sector needs a plan to deal with labour shortages.

 

Ottawa—The farm income picture for 2020 could have been even better but for labour shortages caused by the pandemic, which cost farmers $2.9 billion in lost earnings, says the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council. (CAHRC).

The lost is about equivalent to 4.2 per cent of the sector’s total sales, says Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, CAHRC Executive Director. The Council calculated the loss through a nation-wide survey and series of interviews of agricultural producers conducted by The Conference Board of Canada.

“This research emphasizes the importance of understanding how COVID-19 has affected the agriculture workforce,” she said “The agricultural industry has the potential to grow strongly in the coming years, and could, if labour constraints are addressed, lead the Canadian economy to recover, post-pandemic.”

Agriculture Canada says Canadian farm income and the value of farms are expected to be at an all time high for 2020 and 2021. Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the sector is expected to see significant growth for both years despite the pandemic and other challenges. “The growth in farm income shows that the sector is weathering these disruptions well and adjusting farming decisions accordingly.”

CAHRC says two in five farm employers surveyed were not able to find all the workers that they needed. Of these, 60 per cent experienced productions delay and lost sales. One interviewee was forced to abandon his entire line of asparagus production due to labour shortages, resulting in $700,000 of forgone sales.

“Let this be a call to action,” MacDonald-Dewhirst said. “We need to work together as a sector to develop long-term solutions to the critical labour shortages in agriculture. This calls for strategies to attract, educate and retain Canadian workers; streamline the entry of temporary foreign workers and give them a pathway to permanent residency if they want it; and improve the broadband connectivity to rural Canada to advance the use of technology in agriculture while adding to the quality of life for our rural population.”

The research found 70 per cent of employers reported fewer Canadian job applicants. Before COVID-19, the rural location, seasonality, wages, and physical requirements of agricultural jobs acted as barriers to recruiting and retaining Canadian workers. During COVID-19, additional pressures of self-isolation, child or family care, quarantine after travel, or recovery from illness added to the decline in Canadian applicants.

The number of temporary foreign workers in March 2020 was down 47 per cent due to COVID-19. Although many TFWs were able to come later in the season, the overall number was still significantly fewer than the previous year. For employers, worker travel restrictions, delays obtaining approvals, and difficulties meeting housing and workplace regulations were key challenges in obtaining TFWs.

Farm employers indicate that dealing with a potential COVID-19 outbreak and understanding changing COVID-19 safety measures are their top concerns for 2021. Farm operators indicate that they would benefit from more advice and support geared towards dealing with outbreaks as well as updates on how to best monitor workers’ health and keep them safe.

Alex Binkley is a freelance journalist and writes for domestic and international publications about agriculture, food and transportation issues. He’s also the author of two science fiction novels with more in the works.
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