With COVID-19 cases still on the rise and more Canadians who are unemployed or whose work has been suspended, it’s important the public understand the valuable role foreign workers play in agriculture in the Okanagan and across the province says one local producer.
Gatzke Orchards at Oyama in Lake Country annually employs about 35 people to operate 25-acreas of gardens, orchards and the agri-tourism side of the operation. While the fruit stand open since 1942, and the farm bakery are the main business components, they are complimented by a store front and restaurant as well as ebike rentals and Zenergy imports, which also operate on the property.
For 20 years, owner Alan Gatzke has relied on foreign workers, typically hiring people on working holiday visas for one or two years. However, in 2019, he enrolled in the federal government’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
“When I’m seeing posts and comments on social media about temporary foreign workers, I’m sensing a social backlash toward them that could really hurt agriculture,” says Gatzke. “I’d like to help clear up some misperception.”
For many farm operations, the process to get their foreign labour source started in the fall well before COVID-19 impacts were felt in Canada. Gatzke says some operators hire a few of this valuable labour resource, where others may employ hundreds. They are hired because even though producers are required to advertise jobs locally, Canadians don’t apply.
“The fact is that most people don’t want to get up at 3 a.m. to be ready to pick cherries or other fruit starting at 4 or 4:30 a.m.,” he says.
He had exactly two applications from locals when he posted advertisements for unskilled labour prior to January.
But times change, particularly with the downturn in oil since, and the COVID--19 situation. Many people are off or out of work from places like Fort McMurray and here in the region. He’s recently had about 100 applications from local people looking to work in agriculture roles at the salary level of $15/hour. It’s encouraging. He’s grateful and interested to hire some local labour including a recently retained previous hairdresser. At the same time, he notes that in the past, hiring local didn’t give him as much comfort as a temporary foreign worker through the federal program. As the economic opportunities change many locals return or move on to hiring paying roles or for more traditional 9-5 hours. For those hired through the program the parameters support stability through contract requirements for both employers and employees using the program. The federal program also supports collaboration between local operators as workers are allowed to move to other farms on short mutually agreed upon assignments. Gatzke and a couple of his neighbouring farmers have already been collaborating about sharing labour resources to overcome this year’s challenges.
Another myth: foreign workers provide cheap labour.
“If a temporary foreign worker and a local Canadian were working for the same wage, the farmer hasn’t cut corners by hiring the non-Canadian. They’re actually paying more when you factor in the cost of the flights, medical insurance, administrative costs to ensure proper documentation, plus the cost of establishing, maintaining and following inspection requirements for accommodations we are required to provide,” he says.
Right now, Gatzke’s workers are living in four of the rental cabins on his orchard land. Three have completed self-isolation and the fourth is in the process. None are ill or have been ill.
With estimates of the cost of production at $7000/acre, he says foreign workers give him confidence and certainty knowing he will have trained employees who will stay with his operation through to the end of harvest.
“This certainty enables me to invest in my crop and decide what kind of crop we prune for, how much I spend on inputs like sprays and fertilizer. The public might not understand how much money producers invest during the growing season in hopes of producing a premium crop at the end that will be marketable, and this is even more of a risk this year because many Okanagan producers sell to international markets,” says Gatzke.
There were already ongoing trade matters with places like China and Britain before COVID-19 which now has the potential to disrupt the entire food supply chain depending on the severity and length of the outbreak.
“We learn most when we struggle. Catastrophe causes innovation,” Gatzke says hoping that producers, particularly those who direct market or sell to local buyers see new ways of doing business. He’s working on how to create a safe drive-though market and sees other opportunities such as increased collaboration between farmers and cross sector partnerships like working with restaurants to make deliveries.
“These partnerships could have been forged before but maybe we weren’t motivated enough to pursue them. This is an important time where, I think, partnering with like businesses will pay dividends to those who do this. Banding together with other neighbour producers, for example, the local winery, might help everyone if we can get product to our customers or figure out a way to still do business here at the farm."
Written by: Myrna Stark Leader, COEDC Agriculture Specialist