Border closing leaves ag sector in lurch

Without migrant workers, fruit harvest season in West Niagara and beyond will lack necessary labour- threatening Ontario’s supply chain.

Food security at risk without migrant farm workers

By Joanne McDonald
For NewsNow

The federal government’s decision to close borders to stem the threat of the coronavirus will put Canada’s food security at risk if migrant farm workers, the backbone of the agricultural industry, cannot enter the country.

Local farmers and farm organizations are scared and reeling with Monday’s announcement. No one wants to bring COVID-19 into the country but they warn that without the trained workers they will not be able to supply Ontario or Canada’s need for fresh fruits and vegetables.

An estimated 3,000 migrant workers are expected to be working on Niagara farms this season. Many of them are waiting to arrive.

“It’s devastating to the entire industry and domestic food security,” said Sarah Marshall, Manager of the Ontario Tender Fruit Growers.

“We’re all cramming this morning trying to get a reversal on this decision. This will jeopardize the supply of fruits and vegetables across Canada,” Marshall said.

There was no forewarning and nobody knows what to expect next said Chris Hamilton, President of the Niagara Federation of Agriculture.

“We just don’t know yet. It will leave farmers and the agriculture sector desperate for suitable workers,” Hamilton said.

“The agriculture sector in Canada has grown in relation to trained foreign workers to supplement our work force here in Canada and without them production will suffer significantly.”

“I understand the risks involved but our issue is we struggle to find people who want to take these jobs. I don’t see any easy solution.”

TIME IS CRITICAL

Phil Tregunno, farmer and chair of the Ontario Tender Fruit Growers said there is no way possible farmers can produce enough horticultural products without the migrant workers.

“It’s not possible. We can have partial crops but we cannot supply Ontario’s need for fruits and vegetables let alone Canada.”

“The resolution is they definitely need to check and isolate as workers come into the country. We need that back up right now. We don’t want to import any COVID-19 into the country.”

“Time is critical. A lot of the vegetables will have to get planted. It will be a missed opportunity if we wait too long to make this decision.”

“We cannot produce enough food without these workers. They provide a lot of Canadian jobs too. The biggest problem is when it comes to harvest and by that time it will be too late for the government to react.”

“It’s critical. Without food we can’t live. We can’t count on American products coming here as they will run into food shortages too.”

Kai Wiens works with his two sons on the Niagara-on-the-Lake farm which has been in the family since 1971.

His reaction to the border closing was fear. “I was scared. I don’t know if I will make it through my year if I don’t get the labour.”

“April 7 I have 21 men coming. My orchard needs to be pruned before the end of May.”

“June 10 another 15 guys are going to help with thinning. We drop 80 per cent of our fruit to get size and if we don’t prune, those trees will be in chaos and we will have to drop even 90 per cent of the fruit to get the little bit of fruit that we really want to size up to market ready.”

And it must be trained labour. “Pruning a tree is not going out and dropping sticks on the ground It needs to be correctly pruned and be healthy to be able to grow next year.”

This isn’t a crop that can be delayed. It’s an annual crop, a perennial tree that needs to be pruned, thinned and harvested every year.

“Our food security is at risk without the workers. One resolution would be to test them before they get on the plane.”

“Of course we don’t want the coronavirus brought into Canada. It’s just as important to me that they’re not sick.”

Sonia Aviles, activist and organizer with the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, works out of Niagara Region.

Aviles said an estimated 3,000 migrant workers are expected to be working on Niagara farms this season. “Many of them are waiting to arrive. There are more than 500 here now working mainly in the greenhouses.”

“We believe this is unjust and unnecessary to not allow farm workers to come into the country. They depend on the work and the local farm economy depends on them. Our local food economy will be greatly affectedly this decision.”

“We know they are the backbone of the economy. They are the ones working in the fields.”

Aviles said there is no reason to shut out non-permanent residents while allowing Americans to enter the country. “Anyone can carry the virus. The virus carries no passports.”

She said the economic impact will greatly hurt racialized and low wage migrants.

One measure would be to test people coming from certain countries and take steps in coordination with the farmers to fulfill their obligations to ensure workers are protected and support them if they are sick.

“There needs to be a clear message from employers about what measures they should take,” Aviles said.

Across Niagara, Aviles is hearing the concerns of workers who fear for their income security in the event a farm closes.

“Workers are worried like everybody else. Farm workers are particularly vulnerable.”

Aviles and the MWAC, Canada’s largest coalition of self-organized groups of migrant workers is connected with organizations across the country and offers a local support system across Niagara.

Aviles welcomes anyone with questions to contact her at 289-990-4519 or send a WhatsApp message.

“The government must keep in mind there are hundreds of workers and they need clear messages. It is also the obligation of farmers to make sure they are working with public health.”

The MWAC is circulating an online petition as part of the Migrants Rights Network response to Covid 19, which can be found at migrantrights.ca/COVID19

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