In the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, Victor Hugo Martinez Hipolito tends to his vegetable garden, growing his own produce under the scorching sun so his wife and two young daughters always have something fresh to eat. He never goes into town to buy groceries – a relative makes the trip instead.
Mr. Martinez Hipolito, 39, needs to stay healthy so he can work when the time comes. He’s also trying to stay busy to keep his mind from conjuring dark thoughts as he waits for the phone to ring. Each April for the past three years, he has travelled 4,500 kilometres north, to Creemore, Ont., to spend six months working for Brent Preston, who Mr. Martinez Hipolito endearingly calls “boss.” Mr. Preston and his wife, Gillian Flies, own and operate the New Farm, an ecological operation that grows organic salad greens and cucumbers.
Amid the pandemic, however, Mr. Martinez Hipolito is still waiting for confirmation that he has the work permit and plane ticket he needs to come to Canada as a temporary foreign worker. “I don’t know what will happen – if I’ll be able to travel in time,” he says in a telephone interview from his home. “I depend on the work in Canada. I’m worried. I don’t know what’s going on.”
Mr. Preston and Ms. Flies, who bought the 100-acre property 15 years ago, are just as reliant on Mr. Martinez Hipolito as he is on them. The couple counts on seven Mexican men who’ve been coming to the farm for years and call themselves Los Muchachos. They earn minimum wage, but they’re also paid a percentage of the farm’s profits, which can amount to a 20-per-cent bonus. If the farm struggles, so do they.
Farmers across the country and temporary foreign workers around the world are facing the same troubling circumstances. More than 40,000 people come to Canada for seasonal agricultural work every year, the overwhelming majority of them from Mexico, Jamaica and Guatemala. In the produce sector, they comprise half the work force, according to the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council.
At the best of times, there are thousands of farm-job vacancies in a typical year. Now, with the pandemic wreaking havoc on economies and travel, the flow of workers into Canada has been slow and unsteady. The timing could scarcely be worse. Farmers are used to navigating temperamental weather, changing market conditions and price pressures, but this level of uncertainty has made it nearly impossible to plan ahead, leaving many farmers feeling anxious. One used the word “panic.” Others are retiring early.
Temporary foreign workers are so crucial to the production of quality and affordable food that the federal government on Monday announced it would provide farmers with $1,500 for each temporary foreign worker they employ. The $50-million in funding (which will also flow to food processors) will help offset the cost of paying workers during the mandatory 14-day quarantine period and ensure they have a place to stay where they can maintain physical distance.
Workers have already started to arrive. According to federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, approximately 1,000 farm workers landed last week, with an additional 3,000 to 4,000 slated for this week.
On Monday, the Canadian Honey Council chartered a plane to bring in 80 workers from Nicaragua to ensure the success of the spring beekeeping season, and on Tuesday, workers from Mexico landed in Montreal, wearing masks and standing metres apart as they waited in queues.
Nonetheless, Ms. Bibeau anticipates there will still be a shortfall. “It’s hard to say how many,” she says, noting she has been in touch with Mexico’s ambassador to Canada. “Is it going to be 70 per cent that will be coming? Will it be 80 per cent? It’s hard to tell.”
At a time when supply chains have been disrupted by huge swings and shifts in demand, Ms. Bibeau believes a significant labour shortage represents the biggest threat to Canada’s food security.
The next few weeks are critical for seeding and pruning fruit and vegetable crops, which are much more dependent on manual labour than, say, grain farming.
“Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta are going to keep being the breadbasket,” says Mary Robinson, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. So while flour shortages at the grocery store have made headlines in recent weeks, she says, the real wild card is produce.
If farmers – particularly ones in fruit- and vegetable-rich provinces such as Nova Scotia, Ontario and B.C. – don’t get an adequate supply of labour by the time they need it most, they may cut back on production. Some already have. That could mean less variety and higher prices at the grocery store.
As Mr. Preston puts it: “The crisis is showing the vulnerability of our mainstream, globalized food system.”
GAPS IN THE SUPPLY CHAIN
In farming, cash flow is everything.
It’s a highly capital-intensive industry, beginning with the cost of land. Just last week, the country’s largest agricultural lender, Farm Credit Canada, released a report that said farmland affordability continues to decline relative to farm income. There can also be a long lag between production decisions and the marketing of crops.
With the added stress of the pandemic, the federal government has promised $5-billion in credit to hard-pressed farmers. Although they welcomed the announcement, growing farm debt in Canada remains a concern. Farm Credit Canada hasn’t yet reported on the program’s uptake, but the Crown corporation’s chief economist, J.P. Gervais, says the lending scheme has been “well received.” Its purpose, he says, is to keep farmers from having to make decisions that aren’t in their long-term interest. “Whenever there’s a crisis – whether it’s this or something else – working capital is the first line of defence in farming,” he says.
While decreased supply typically means increased prices, that’s only true if demand is unchanged. But with the volatility the coronavirus crisis has brought, it’s hard to know what consumers will buy and from where.
The price of wheat declined at the outset of the pandemic, for example, but then rebounded with panic buying. Also a factor was Russia’s decision to restrict wheat exports to protect its domestic market.
“We’re realizing the supply chain we had was working really well, but if you shake one part of it, there’s a cascading effect,” Mr. Gervais says.
International labour is part of that supply chain, and Jan VanderHout, a third-generation farmer near Hamilton, Ont., is feeling the effects. His family’s farm, Beverly Greenhouses, is currently short six people from Mexico. If they don’t arrive soon, production will decline. Across the sector, he says, there’s an extreme sense of urgency. “I’m really concerned for our national food supply,” says Mr. VanderHout, whose farm grows about 16 million cucumbers each year, from seed to finish. “If those broccolis and cauliflowers and whatever other crops are not being sown in greenhouses for planting [in the fields] in a couple of months, where is our food going to be coming from?”
U.S. President Donald Trump’s tendency toward protectionism makes it all the more important that Canada boost its food self-sufficiency, Mr. VanderHout says. The U.S. is the source of more than half of Canada’s imported food.
The concerns of smaller and mid-sized farms like Beverly Greenhouses and the New Farm are mirrored in larger operations. In Delta, B.C., Ruben Houweling grows tomatoes, cucumbers and basil in 50 acres of greenhouses, along with millions of young tomato, cucumber and pepper seedlings that he sells to other farmers. In a typical year, he brings in about 160 workers from Mexico and Guatemala, in gradual steps, to augment his domestic workforce of about 70. Seven of those foreign workers should have arrived by now.
Like other farms, the result is that Mr. Houweling’s existing employees are working longer hours, all while abiding by physical distancing and sanitation protocols. They’ve split the shifts so that lunchrooms and bathrooms don’t get crowded. If Mr. Houweling doesn’t get workers in the next few weeks to prune and train the plants, production will be affected.
The same is true for Peter Quiring, the owner of Ontario’s Nature Fresh Farms, which grows tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and strawberries in greenhouses. He has about 600 employees in Leamington, of which almost half are temporary workers from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Thailand. About 18 have already arrived, and 120 or so more are still due to come. Any further delays will affect his yield. So far, he has hired some students and local workers, though he saw “not a big uptake there, which is not a surprise.” In his experience, Canadians aren’t willing to do hot, sticky, repetitive work.
Farmers across the country say there are plenty of other reasons locals can’t simply step in to replace foreign workers on any meaningful scale – something Ms. Bibeau, along with provincial governments across the country, is encouraging out-of-work Canadians to consider.
For one thing, working the crops takes skill, and it’s not exactly easy to train people who are supposed to be keeping their distance. For another, locals would have to commute to and from the farm, raising the likelihood that the novel coronavirus could creep into their operations. And when the state of emergency lifts, workers could return to their old jobs, leaving farmers in the lurch.
Labour is a significant disruption, but it’s not the only one. Normal services to maintain or fix farm equipment aren’t readily available, so Mr. Houweling’s team is having to hold remote calls with technicians in Ontario and Europe who can provide guidance. There’s also the matter of rapidly shifting demand. When the pandemic first hit, consumers went on a buying spree, and sales at Nature Fresh Farms soared by about 80 per cent. But then people hunkered down or fell short of money, leading to temporary oversupply. “The long and the short of it is that it’s really hard to predict markets right now,” Mr. Quiring said, “because history doesn’t matter at all.”
MAKING HAY WHEN THE SUN SHINES
The temperatures are blistering in Chiapas, but snow fell just days ago on the New Farm. That’s a good thing. A later start to spring in Ontario buys Mr. Martinez Hipolito and Mr. Preston time.
Los Muchachos typically arrive on the farm before the end of April and immediately get to work. That timeline is looking increasingly unlikely, especially given that the workers – like anyone else coming into Canada – must self-isolate upon arrival. Mr. Preston supports the federal requirement that workers receive pay during that period, but he concedes it adds financial pressure at an already challenging time. “Our primary concern is the health of our employees,” he says, adding that most of the workers will stay in a converted schoolhouse about a kilometre from the farm. “If one of our employees arrives with COVID, there’s a fairly decent chance we’ll get it.” Ms. Flies, who works on the farm and interacts closely with the staff, has asthma, making her more susceptible to complications from respiratory illness.
Mr. Preston says it’s not feasible to replace his foreign workers with local labour. For one, Mr. Martinez Hipolito and the rest of the team know how to use the three-foot-tall motorized salad spinners that dry the greens; when the machines break, the men are able to get them back up and running within a half-hour. They also know how to plant the seeds in specific ratios and ensure the different species remain segregated. “I get my back up a little bit on the subject,” says Mr. Preston, who’s also president of the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario. “There’s a perception that anyone can do farm work.”
The stakes are high. In a good year, the New Farm might have 22 weeks of sales. Shave even two weeks off that – the “best-case scenario,” in Mr. Preston’s estimation – and the farm’s sales will drop 10 per cent. “You have to make hay when the sun shines,” he says.
He explains that salad greens have a very short growing period; some take only three weeks to mature. The New Farm, then, is constantly planting and harvesting from April through to October. All of the work is done by hand or with push-seeders. And because the farm doesn’t use pesticides, row cover must be laid down atop the crop to guard against pests.
It doesn’t help that nearly two-thirds of the New Farm’s sales come from fine-dining restaurants and on-site events. As Canadians self-isolate and restaurants suspend dine-in eating, the farm will need to find new buyers. Ms. Flies has been calling new and existing retail customers to see if they’ll purchase the New Farm’s product or increase their orders. That would be great, but it will also require additional labour and incur new costs; more greens will need to be packaged in 141-gram clamshell containers, as opposed to being sold in five-pound bins to food-services customers.
The New Farm is also hoping to work with its distributor, 100km Foods Inc., to get its product into nearby homes. The wholesale local food distributor typically connects chefs with products from farmers, but in the era of COVID-19, the company is selling pre-packed market boxes containing produce, dairy and meat. Over the weekend, the 100km Foods website said its produce boxes were sold out. “People are turning toward food that they trust, that comes from their local community, that’s not crossing all kinds of borders, and that’s grown in a responsible manner,” Mr. Preston says.
He’s not sure how much he and Ms. Flies will be growing this year. Although they bought their seed during the winter, they might not plant all of it. And they’re still working out their prices for the season. Their existing retail customers – Fiesta Farms and the Big Carrot – sell to a clientele that’s willing to pay more for local, responsibly produced fare. But will other retailers and their shoppers make the same calculation, when they can get greens imported from California at half the price?
As Mr. Preston contemplates how to get through this year’s growing season, he wonders whether the New Farm might emerge stronger than ever. The operation will have a more diverse customer base. The public will be acutely aware of how food is produced and distributed. And with the issue of climate change now more squarely at the fore, ecological farms like his might see a bump in sales. “How can we make this shift more permanent?” Mr. Preston says. “How can we make sure people don’t go back to the status quo, where the large majority of consumers don’t know or care where their food comes from, and where the decision is made largely on price?”
For now, Mr. Preston is looking at the three-day weather forecast. There’s no point looking ahead any further. And he’s staying in close touch with his crew in Mexico, including Mr. Martinez Hipolito, who is trying to tire himself out by day so he can sleep at night.
He and his wife, Mirna Martinez, 46, are also turning to their faith in these unprecedented times, holding Seventh-Day Adventist services in their countryside home with their daughters, Ana Victoria, 13, and Abby Valentina, 10. And they stay glued to the television for news about the pandemic. They hang on every word, hoping Mr. Martinez Hipolito and the other workers will be able to make the journey to Canada soon.
“We’re counting on that,” he says. “It’s important for us as a family.”
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