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Victor Manuel, seen here with his youngest son in February, 2020, has worked for the past three years on Strawberry Hills Farm in New Brunswick.Handout

George Dukeshire is a third-generation farmer who grows 24 varieties of apples, along with pears and plums, in his orchard alongside the Saint John River in western New Brunswick.

In half a century of farming, he’s seen huge ups and downs. Now, he’s not sure how he’ll weather the coming season. Late last month, Premier Blaine Higgs abruptly announced that temporary foreign workers are banned from entry – the only province in Canada to place such a restriction, which occurred just as spring planting season was about to start.

In an instant, a critical part of Mr. Dukeshire’s work force evaporated, while in Mexico, his long-term employees lost their livelihoods. He typically employs eight workers who return each year. One of them has been coming for 19 years, another for 12. They’re experienced and work without supervision, thinning the trees, pruning, making cider and harvesting.

“They know where every tree is on the farm,” said Mr. Dukeshire, whose Orchard Shade Farms is near Woodstock, N.B. “They’re crucial, essential workers, they’re part of the family and you can’t replace them with people off the street. We depend on them and they depend on us.”

He cancelled a $10,000 apple tree order from nurseries in Ontario because of a lack of labour, a decision that will affect yields in the years to come. He said production could be reduced to about 25 per cent of capacity this year as a result of the ban.

He’s not alone. Fruit and vegetable farmers, along with lobster processors who use temporary foreign workers, say New Brunswick’s decision is catastrophic and that the move was made without consultation. Some farmers say this will result in lower production, less variety and higher prices of local food.

New Brunswick’s farmers are facing particular troubles in finding experienced labour, but this isn’t uncommon; Across Canada, seasonal workers, a crucial fixture in the country’s farming and food-processing sectors, have been arriving, but at a slower pace and not in the same volumes as in previous years.

In April, 11,000 such workers arrived – about 2,000 short of last year’s numbers, and the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council says the sector is still facing challenges in getting enough workers, including foreign workers.

New Brunswick’s Mr. Higgs announced on April 28 that foreign workers are restricted from entering the province. He cited the risk of outbreaks of COVID-19 as a reason, and urged employers to fill the vacant positions with students and unemployed local people.

Emilio Ramirez Agudo, seen here in Oaxaca in February, 2020, works on Strawberry Hill Farm in New Brunswick each year.Handout

Farmers and processors say they have tried that – and that even this year, there have been few takers. Even if they do manage to hire, productivity rates tend to be lower and attrition higher among local, less experienced workers. On farms, reliable labour is particularly crucial during the key harvest months – just as students may be returning to school or workers called back to their former jobs.

Farming isn’t the only food sector affected. Seafood processing is also suffering. Friday marked the start of the lobster season for parts of New Brunswick and Luc Doiron was counting on 120 foreign workers, many of them from Mexico. Their luggage was packed, they were ready to go – and then they found out the day before they were due to board a plane that they were no longer allowed to come.

With more than half his work force gone, Mr. Doiron, president of Suncoast Seafood, in Grande-Digue, N.B., estimates his plant will operate at less than 50-per-cent capacity.

He has tried to find replacements. “With all the efforts that we’ve been trying [to] hire locally … we’ve got probably 10 people,” he said.

New Brunswick has had zero new cases of COVID-19 in nearly two weeks, and everyone who had the coronavirus that causes the disease has now recovered.

Mr. Higgs has said the ban was made out of public-health considerations, and that he hopes the move will spur employers to fill vacancies by hiring locally. At a news conference on Friday, however, he acknowledged the response has not been what he had anticipated.

“Has the uptake been what I had hoped for at this point? No, it has not. Is it concerning when we have 70,000 unemployed in the province? Yes, it is,” he said, adding that he believes “the federal program of paying people four months to stay home and not need to even look for a job” has been a factor.

Farmers such as Tim Livingstone support the idea of connecting people with local food producers and increasing food security. But they argue not this sudden type of move, in the midst of a pandemic that’s caused other business upheavals and disruptions in the food supply across the country and the world.

Mr. Livingstone’s organic farm produces about 50 different vegetables and berries, along with eggs and meat, distributed in a weekly basket-delivery program. It’s a diversified farm, which means training is a long process – at least a year or longer. “You can’t just give somebody a one-week orientation and they’re good to go.”

Demand for his food has grown since the pandemic hit, and he was planning to ramp up production. He’d been counting on five foreign workers this year, who start with planting onions, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower this time of year. He typically hires two Canadians for every temporary foreign worker. Four of the workers are from Mexico; one has been coming for five years in a row.

The ban “is a huge mistake,” he says. “Without that core coming back, it makes it much harder, because I can't send anybody with a trained worker.”

The impact stretches 5,000 kilometres away, to Potrerillo in central Mexico, where Victor Manuel Magin Pena, a father of three who comes each year with his uncle, was counting on working at Mr. Livingstone’s Strawberry Hill Farm. The income helps to “get ahead, and to feed my family” and provide supports for his children to study, he said. In Mexico, “it is very difficult to survive.”

Health concerns can be addressed by proper checks and balances, said Erica Di Ruggiero director of the Centre for Global Health at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health in Toronto. If federal and provincial guidelines are implemented and monitored, and physical distancing and other protocols followed, “if all those things are working in tandem, then I think the risks are being mitigated,” she said. “I think it’s really unfortunate that workers who were expecting to come, and the farmers who were expecting to have them come ... were left out.”

Robert Bourgeois, who runs the largest apple producer in the province, is short 15 temporary foreign workers. If the ban continues, he expects they won’t be able to pick about half the crop – attrition rates are typically much higher and productivity lower among local staff. He would love to see programs that encourage young people to work on farms. But “this is not a year to do an experiment,” he said.

“There’s been this big push in New Brunswick that everybody should go out and work on the farm or in a fish plant this summer to help the economy,” said Lisa Ashworth, president of the Agricultural Alliance of New Brunswick “We haven’t had a single person call us, talk to us, bring a résumé or ask for work.”

Mr. Dukeshire, the apple grower, said the decision to shut out labourers has made an already-stressful situation even worse.

“These people are labelled wrong,” he says. “They’re not ‘migrant workers.’ They’re not ‘foreign workers.’ They’re professional harvest workers and they’re professional farmers. And we just can’t do it without them.”

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