• About 60,000 migrant workers come to Canada each year to plant and harvest crops. (Photo: Asparagus Farmers of Ontario)

About 60,000 temporary foreign workers come to Canada each year to work the fields, planting, harvesting and packaging crops across the country. 

This year, those workers aren’t arriving in the scores we’re used to, with their travels delayed or halted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Pruning apple orchards and planting asparagus are all things that have to happen about now,” says Evan Fraser, director of the Arrell Food Institute and Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security at the University of Guelph. “And it looks like the [B.C.] interior is having an early spring. That adds a bit of urgency. We’re at a critical juncture.”

Fraser says there’s going to be a trickle-down effect to consumers if farmers can’t get the help they need.

“Mother Nature doesn’t wait for quarantine periods.”

Right now, migrant workers are permitted to enter Canada, but must self-isolate for 14 days on arrival. Bernie Solymar, executive director of Asparagus Farmers of Ontario, says the logistical difficulties of making that happen are “almost comical.”

“Normally the workers go into town and do their own shopping but now farmers are doing their shopping,” says Solymar, adding that farmers also have to pay migrant workers while they’re in self-isolation. 

“So they’re being paid to be in the bunkhouse and not work, which is taxing on the farmers that are already looking at a poor season.”

The asparagus season in Ontario starts around May 5 and runs until the end of June. Solymar says migrant workers from Mexico and Jamaica are just beginning to arrive, but some — like those from Tobago and Grenada — don’t have permission to leave their own countries. 

“The concern is because we have to put them in quarantine for a few weeks, can we get the crop picked,” says Solymar. “We could be looking at late May or the first week of June before they’re out of quarantine and by then the season is half over.”

Unusual circumstances for self-isolation

About 70 per cent of the asparagus acreage in Ontario is in Norfolk County and the health unit there has restricted how Norfolk growers have to handle their migrant workers. 

“We can’t have more than three workers per bunkhouse during the self isolation period,” says Solymar. “The illogical aspects of that are that we have bunkhouses that house anywhere up to 50 people. In a 50-person bunkhouse we can only have three people.”

The federal government has pledged $50 million to assist farmers and fish processors with bringing in temporary foreign workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Solymar says there’s a “massive scramble” to retrofit living conditions to accommodate the arrival of the workers. 

Maintaining supply a challenge

The reliance on migrant workers is huge. Solymar estimates that only about five per cent of the asparagus crops in Ontario could be picked without their help. And the problem extends beyond just asparagus.

“There will be some disruptions in the supply chain,” says Fraser. “There will be higher product prices in the medium term. This will not be a normal year, even if the weather is normal.”

If asparagus isn't harvested on time, the shoots grow into tall fern-like plants with small red seeds.
(Photo: Asparagus Farmers of Ontario)

Filling the open job spots with workers from Canada might work in the medium term, but it won’t solve immediate problems.

“There’s a skills gap; these skills need to be worked at,” says Solymar. “It’s not a viable solution in the next few weeks.”

Solymar says for the asparagus farmers in Ontario, at best they’re looking at harvesting up to 50 per cent of the crop. 

“We have growers who have decided to only do half the crop because they just don’t have the manpower. I even have one grower who’s decided not to harvest at all,” says Solymar. “It won’t have an impact on the plant itself, but it’s the whole concept of the deduction of food available to Ontarians.”

As circumstances and regulations change almost by the hour, Fraser says everyone is just doing the best they can. 

“My sympathy to the government and the farmers and the workers,” says Fraser. “We’re all facing a very difficult set of constraints.”