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Kenton Possberg fears that changes to the program will mean he loses some long-time farmhands who know his land better than he does, and have years of experience operating the high-tech farm machinery.Matt Smith/The Globe and Mail

Two of the biggest challenges Saskatchewan grain farmer Kenton Possberg faces are weather and workers. He can't control the rain, and he increasingly has trouble finding people willing to spend long days driving a tractor on his 14,000-acre farm east of Saskatoon.

Half of the 12 full-time employees on his farm are from overseas – New Zealand, Austria and South Africa. He pays for their flights and phones and subsidizes their rent in the nearby town of Humboldt. He pays wages of $18 to $25 an hour as well as a season-ending bonus, all because he can't find enough Canadians.

But he fears that changes to the federal temporary foreign worker (TFW) program will mean that he loses some long-time farmhands who know his land better than he does, and have years of experience operating the high-tech farm machinery used to seed and harvest canola, barley and other crops.

"I need to emphasize that we hire Canadians first," Mr. Possberg said. "But the biggest reason we cannot hire Canadians is the seasonal nature of the work."

Even as the national unemployment rate hovers around 7 per cent, farmers, meat packers and other agri-food businesses say they cannot find enough Canadians to hire. The work is often unpleasant (butchering livestock) or seasonal (planting and harvesting). So they rely on a handful of federal programs that allow them to bring in temporary foreign workers, seasonal agricultural workers and students and young farmers.

"Very few Canadians are willing to take on this kind of work when the duration is so short. Two months in the spring and two months in the fall. And it's long hours. Often you are miles away from home," said Blair Rutter, executive director of Saskatoon-based Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association. "You're just not able to attract people that have families."

After published reports showed that the fast-food industry was using temporary foreign workers to replace Canadians, the federal government last year limited employers' access to the system.

"The temporary foreign worker program is intended to be a last and limited resort when employers are facing short-term skills and labour shortages, and only when qualified Canadians are not available. In June, 2014, the government overhauled the program to ensure that it continues to meet this objective," a government spokesperson said in an e-mail.

In the case of Mr. Possberg and other grain farmers, this means that they must let go any temporary foreign employee who accumulates four years on the job. And as a grain farmer, the seasonal agriculture worker program relied upon by fruit and vegetable growers is off limits. "Our goal is to get an agriculture-only program," he said by phone.

Mr. Possberg competes for labour with the potash mines that dot his part of Saskatchewan, as well as the oil patch. Both industries offer steadier hours and often better pay. He said he has not seen any increase in applications from oil-patch workers laid off amid the slump in energy prices.

In addition to his six foreign workers, Mr. Possberg employs four retired farmers. They once made up the bulk of his staff, but as farm machinery became more computerized, he increasingly turned to the foreign combine operators, who typically work the Canadian growing season before flying home to the Southern Hemisphere to seed and harvest there.

"Our equipment is so sophisticated now. It's like getting into the cockpit of an airplane. I have a hard time with some of the stuff. [For] these 70- and 75-year-old guys that we've always relied on, it's overwhelming."

Some of his workers know the land better than he does, Mr. Possberg said. They know how to get a million-dollar, multitonne rig through the wet spots in the field without getting stuck, and they know where the power lines are dangerously low on the roads that link the fields.

"There are safety considerations. You can't hire someone and the next day expect them to know that piece of equipment," he said. "Some people you never can train. It depends on the person. Some people pick up on it right away. Other people, it takes a long time. Knowing how to operate a piece of equipment and then knowing the land – that is a big issue."

As soon as his crop is harvested in the fall, Mr. Possberg begins placing local ads for the next year's planting season. He will get a few local calls from retired teachers or bankers asking if they can have weekends off (they can't) or if they can go home at 5 (nope). "We might have a week where we do nothing, but then the next three weeks, we go 14 and 16 hours a day seven days a week until the weather stops us."

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