F.A.R.M.S. continuing efforts through major challenges presented by global pandemic
Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (F.A.R.M.S.) helped bring around 23,000 migrant workers into Canada in 2021 says President Ken Forth, a number roughly comparable to a COVID-19-challenged 2020.
“Similar to the year before,” said Forth, when approximately 24,000 workers supported by F.A.R.M.S. contributed to agricultural production and by extension, national economic activity and Canadian food security.
Those numbers represent a significant dip from pre-pandemic totals, with approximately 27,000 workers arriving in 2019. Of that total, Forth estimates between 2,000 and 3,000 headed to the Atlantic provinces with a majority coming to Ontario, and a majority of those (around 90 per cent) attending through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). Post-harvest 2019 predictions anticipated around 30,000 workers coming for the following agricultural season.
Rather than that projected ten per cent increase however, far-reaching COVID-19 challenges and consequences resulted in a similar percentage drop.
Forth recalls its earliest days, ‘rumblings coming out of China.’
“It certainly started out where nobody, and I mean nobody, farmers, politicians, health care professionals, nobody knew anything. We hadn’t heard about this thing and didn’t know what it was.”
The perception of COVID-19 transitioned from something distant that wouldn’t affect Canadians Forth continued, to a memorable conference call in which he was informed the migrant worker program was being suspended for two weeks by the federal government. He understood his inclusion as a courtesy to personally inform a person who’d been passionately involved in the program for many years, amidst concerns he might ‘freak out.’
“Everyone was silent on the line,” said Forth, a pause followed by a cautious inquiry for comments.
“At that point, everyone on the line was speechless,” he recalled, relieved to see the program reinstated two weeks later, albeit under stringent restrictions.
“They didn’t know what they were doing either,” he conceded. “We all learned as we went.”
Forth prefers an approach driven by health care professionals, doing their best to adjust to an evolving understanding of COVID-19 and defining what were often constantly changing best practices.
“They would tell us what to do, and we would do it.”
His concerns are elevated when ‘politics’ enters the equation.
“I don’t know how effective that is.”
He felt for workers from his own farm dealing with a 14-day quarantine period.
“It’d be like being in a luxury Alcatraz,” Forth summarized, noting he’d be ‘climbing the walls’ himself, despite access to TV, phone and computer and good food.
Forth also objects to external criticism of farmers struggling to maintain operations through a pandemic as unfairly viewed through a rear-view mirror, rather than the constantly-shifting real time terrain where it actually played out.
“Information is still evolving and will continue to evolve.”
2020’s two-week pause, in conjunction with associated logistical challenges and uncertainty in countries of origin contributed to an early-season shortage. Jamaica kept up on its paperwork credited Forth, and the turnaround there between re-opening and workers on planes was comparatively brief, compared to some other locations. The resultant shortage of ‘a couple of thousand workers’ had an impact on asparagus producers most notably, primarily in Norfolk County said Forth, which faced an unplanned shortage from people “who just didn’t get here.
“It was just too late for the asparagus guys and anyone else who wanted workers at that particular moment.”
Since that unavoidable blip, a challenged process has remained comparatively consistent through the herculean efforts of workers, farmers, origin nations, Canadian officials and F.A.R.M.S. staff. Although rarely in the office, the latter often work longer hours at home credits Forth.
“If they’re not done, they keep working,” he said. “Everyone is trying their best,” he continued, noting process is simply taking longer throughout the entire world. “No matter what supply chain you are talking about.”
A small percentage of the drop in demand for migrant workers is attributable to a number of older farmers being pushed into retirement through additional pandemic-related challenges and demands.
“They are saying enough is enough,” says Forth. “It’s not a rash of it, but probably a few dozen.”
The temporary foreign worker program had its origins in the combination of an agricultural labour shortage here and high unemployment elsewhere, says Forth, with 264 pioneering Jamaican workers arriving in 1966. Migrant worker ranks have swollen to around 35,000 nationally he continued, their commitment and presence a crucial element in Canadian production, food security and broad-based economic spinoffs.
“We need that to happen in this country.”
Citing five per cent of production as the difference between over and under supply, Forth’s concern is how fine and serious the line is between the two is, potential ramifications of crossing that line misunderstood.
“I believe, and I wish I was wrong, that politicians and Canadian consumers actually subconsciously believe the United States will feed us. I guess the question I have is what happens if they have a huge problem in the fields of California, Pennsylvania and Florida?
“Do we really believe they’ll feed us, do we?”
The Omicron variant represents a huge, unplanned curveball Forth concedes, early indications making it ‘look’ more contagious, if less serious.
“And it looks like everyone’s going to get it. This is going to touch a lot more people than we know.”
The effort to make agricultural residential and work space as safe as possible is ongoing.
“But it’s pretty tough,” he continued, noting farm work tends be require a group setting. “Working in teams to harvest so-called food.”
Last year, employers were not able to mandate vaccination, which some workers were reluctant to accept given either rumours or misinformation.
“But we tried to give them true information as supplied by the local health units.”
Forth sees vaccination - and not only in migrant workers - as an effective tool in the pursuit of normalcy.
“You’re not bulletproof, but a lot better than without a vaccine.”
The situation remains volatile, with a temporary suspension of migrant worker arrivals in Windsor-Essex, a scenario announced one Tuesday evening at 8 p.m. earlier this year says Forth, coming into effect four hours later at midnight. Three tense days of intense negotiations later the situation was resolved, due in significant part he credited to the efforts of George Gilvesy and the greenhouse board.
In addition, a small percentage of workers have been derailed by a positive test the day before embarking, and one flight was even affected by January’s unwelcome winter storm.
However in the face of problems large and comparatively smaller and an ever-changing environment, F.A.R.M.S. will remain committed and diligent to facilitating arrival of workers who have become integral contributors to Canadian agriculture.
“As close to the requirements of farmers as possible,” Forth concluded.