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April 7, 2020

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Foreign labor crisis hits farms in US, Canada

Mandatory coronavirus quarantines of seasonal foreign workers in Canada could hurt that country’s fruit and vegetable output this year, and travel problems related to the pandemic could also leave US farmers with fewer workers than usual.

Foreign labor is critical to farm production in both countries.

In Canada, where farms rely on 60,000 temporary foreign workers, their arrivals are delayed by initial border restrictions and grounded flights. Once there, they most undergo 14 days’ quarantine with pay.

In the US, nearly 250,000 foreign guest workers, mostly from Mexico, help harvest fruit and vegetables each year. The State Department is processing visas, although some companies are still having a hard time getting workers in on time.

Ontario farmer Mike Chromczak said he was afraid he might be unable to harvest his asparagus crop next month unless his 28 Jamaican workers start arriving by mid-April.

“It would be well over 50 percent of our farm’s revenue” lost, Chromczak said. “But I see it as a much bigger issue than me. This is a matter of food security for our country.”

Steve Bamford’s 35 Caribbean workers are just starting to trickle in to his Ontario apple orchards. Then they are isolated and paid for 40 hours per week during that period without touching a tree. Pruning work, a critical step to maximize yields, is now overdue.

“It’s an extreme cost. You don’t plan on bringing people in and not work for two weeks,” Bamford said.

Some Canadian farmers expect to reap smaller fruit and vegetable harvests this year if foreign labor is not available soon, said Scott Ross, director of farm policy at the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.

In the United States, “delays are potentially very hazardous to farmers who were counting on that workforce to show up at an exact period of time to harvest a perishable crop,” said Dave Puglia, CEO of Western Growers Association, which represents fruit and vegetable companies in states like California and Arizona.

He said workers in the US do not have to wait 14 days before they start working, although more efforts are being made to space them out on the farms.

Abad Hernandez Cruz, a Mexican farmworker harvesting onions in Georgia, is working 12 or more hours a day. “A lot of people are missing,” he said, referring to farmworkers whose visas weren’t approved after the United States scaled back some consular activities. “If the farm doesn’t produce, the city doesn’t eat.”




 

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