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  • Norfolk Farms

Two Canadian jobs for every seasonal worker

The Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services (FARMS) is a cornerstone of Norfolk County’s prosperity.

Not only does FARMS facilitate the large seasonal labour force essential to grow and harvest the wide variety of local agricultural crops, the program also injects hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy.

FARMS had its genesis in 1966 when a small group of local orchard owners negotiated with contacts in Jamaica to bring in 200 workers for apple harvest. A short time later, similar arrangements were made with Barbados and Trinidad.

Today, FARMS bring in about 20,000 workers into Ontario from seven Caribbean countries, as well as Mexico. There are about 6900 in Norfolk alone.

It was federally incorporated in 1985 to facilitate and coordinate processing requests by farmers for seasonal agricultural workers and is governed by representatives of commodity boards.

Gary Cooper of Vittoria got on board with what was commonly known as the off-shore worker program in 1972 and became a leader of the organization.

The perishable crops of Norfolk County rely on dependable workers and the program was the solution to the required labor requirements.

“(Former agriculture minister) Eugene Whelan called it one of the best foreign programs ever developed,” Cooper said.

Basically, the program provided farmers with “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay and everyone has maintained the integrity” of its core mission ever since.

“The economic impact of the program is really significant,” Cooper said.

In a national survey commissioned by FARMS in 2017, it was pointed out that horticulture crops across the country produced over $6 billion in annual direct farm cash receipts with Canadian vegetable exports accounting for $1.5 billion and fresh fruit exports accounting for $1.2 billion.

Seasonal agriculture workers accounted for just over 34,000 jobs in Canada with a job multiplier of over two Canadian jobs for every seasonal job.

An experienced and trained workforce is essential for producers who produce seasonal crops. The survey indicated that 59 per cent of seasonal workers return to their farms for between five to 15 years.

In the survey, half of the respondents reported sales of $1 million or greater and the average farm participating in the study had production gross receipts of $1.78 million.

Cooper said the workers are happy to have a job and often perform extra tasks in the fields such as weeding.

Brett Schuyler, a third generation orchard owner using the program, stresses the importance of seasonal workers.

“We have 140 people working up to eight months a year,” he said

His grandfather was among the first local farmers to use Caribbean workers and today the program is so essential that Norfolk County’s agricultural economy literally depends on them.

“We’re so blessed,” he said. “Without them we would not be Ontario’s Garden.”

To provide a bit of recreation for the workers, Schuyler helps organize a soccer tournament pitting representatives of the different countries represented in the program. Cooper provides a barbecue for his workers.

“We have a good rapport with them,” he said.

The influx of workers is a boon to dozens of retailers in the area, particularly Simcoe where as many as 40 busloads arrive weekly at the parking lot of the downtown mall.

Dwayne Good, manager of the Giant Tiger store, has witnessed the influx for the past 10 years every early June to October when business “really explodes.”

Good said the most popular purchases are food items, such as rice and cookies, and particularly a peanut punch drink. Later in the season the workers buy clothing and items for their families back home.

Other stores benefit as well.

Dave Kenney quit his job at US Steel at Nanticoke to sell clothing aimed at Caribbean and Mexican workers.

“It gets crazy when they come to town,” he said.

The workers also ship local goods back home. Cooper said they put their purchases into crates and at the end of the season put them into shipping containers.

“At my place we have 12 containers, all going to Jamaica,” he said. “That’s a real impact.”

Cooper added that money transfer services, such as Western Union, experience big lineups each week as workers send home money to their families.

Adrian Mason has been coming to Norfolk County from Barbados since 1979 when he was 27 years old.

His first job and introduction to Canada was picking apples near Collingwood.

“It was the first time I’d seen snow and there was ice in my hair and beard,” he laughed.

Over the years he has worked on several farms, harvesting fruit, vegetables, tobacco and ginseng.

Mason said the money he has made has allowed him to buy a home in Barbados, as well as appliances and food to support his family.

“God bless Gerald Dierick and his sons,” he said of one farmer where he worked for 29 years.

Mason said he has never experienced any problems with other workers or the local population.

“Everyone gets along well,” he said

He particularly cited Jim and Louise Wakeford who operate a convenience store in Simcoe.

“They’ve been very nice to me and have visited me in Barbados,” Mason said.

Now 66, Mason has qualified for Canada Pension and Old Age Security benefits but intends to come back for a few more years.

Wakeford opened Max Convenience Store 30 years ago in downtown Simcoe. He attributed migrant workers with significantly boosting his business.

He pointed out that Friday, when workers come into town, accounts for 35 per cent of his week’s business.

His big sellers are energy drinks and cigarettes, but the workers also buy large quantities of foodstuffs for their daily meals on the farm, specifically rice, flour, sugar and vegetable oil.

“They also buy a lot of deodorant and different kinds of soap,” Wakeford said.

Friday and Saturday nights see the downtown streets filled with workers who socialize primarily at local bars and the Army, Navy and Air Force branch which offers entertainment and dancing.

Wakeford suggested a needed facility that should be provided for the workers are portable toilets in the downtown.

Tanya Vanrooy is a local entertainment entrepreneur who has organized an annual cultural event aimed at Mexican and Caribbean workers for the past four years in downtown Simcoe.

Vanrooy, who grew up on a local farm, is well aware of the importance of the foreign worker to Norfolk County and organized a festival for them in downtown Simcoe.

“Every year support for the festival has grown and local businesses are reaching out,” she said.

Alan Duthie, president of the Simcoe and District Chamber of Commerce, said the weekly influx of workers is not only an economic boon, but also a cultural addition to the community.

“It’s a social opportunity for them and they interact with one another and the community,” he said.

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