Some cautious central Alberta fruit and vegetable growers cut back production over fears of a pandemic-created shortage of temporary foreign workers.
“Our first foreign worker just arrived here an hour ago,” said Beck Farms’ Shelley Bradshaw on Tuesday afternoon.
“One was supposed to be here in April, one was supposed to be here in May, and then we were supposed to have three more in July.”
Four workers are now confirmed to be arriving and she hopes to get word the fifth has arrived next week.
The uncertainty about how COVID-19 and the resulting health and travel restrictions would impact Canada’s 60,000-strong temporary foreign worker program led some area farms to cut back production rather than risk growing products that could not be picked in time.
Bradshaw estimates the family cut production of vegetables that need to be handpicked — such as cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage and brussel sprouts — by about one-third.
The Innisfail-area farm will produce half as many beets this year because the first crop had to be plowed under after she, her husband, two sons and an Olds College student hired for the summer could not keep ahead of the weeds.
Other producers have also cut back, although some growers were lucky, and got all of their temporary foreign workers more or less on time, she said.
Bradshaw said with a smaller supply of vegetables for sale, she may have to reduce the number of farmers’ markets she sells at if supplies start to dwindle.
A new University of Calgary report released on Tuesday says many producers will likely have a difficult summer this year.
Border restrictions imposed by the Canadian government to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as the likely reluctance by some workers to travel, have “significantly impeded the use of TFWs in Canada’s food-production system,” says the report from the university’s school of public policy.
The total number of temporary foreign workers who have arrived in Canada so far this year is down 14 per cent, 0r 3,800 workers, says the report.
Alberta uses relatively few foreign workers — about 3,100 in 2019. Ontario leads provinces, relying on nearly 25,000 foreign workers last year, while Quebec was next with just under 17,000.
In Alberta, two-thirds of foreign workers are employed as farm labour.
Replacing foreign workers with enough home-grown employees — most without experience — may not be practicable, says the U of C report.
When New Brunswick banned all foreign workers because of the pandemic, it led to no significant increase in local hiring, says the study.
“Producers may not be able to hire Canadians willing to work on farms, ranches or in food-processing plants in sufficient numbers to make up for the shortfall in TFWs.”
The report’s author says government policy makers must understand the role of international labour to reduce the future risk to Canada’s food supply.
“COVID-19 has revealed the vulnerabilities of TFWs to the pandemic, as well as the potential risk to the labour supply of Canada’s agricultural sector.”