THIS PAST SUNDAY Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham commented on two areas of concern regarding the B.C. farm, fish and food sector.
The first of these was seasonal labour.
According to Popham, more than 10,000 seasonal farm workers travel from their homes to work on farms and food-processing locations all over the province. They come from different regions, provinces and countries.
Further, she noted that … it is the federal government that determines who can enter Canada and under what conditions. The Ministry of Agriculture’s executive team is working with the federal government and other provinces on a daily basis regarding foreign labour.
In a release from the federal government, it was noted that … temporary foreign workers in agriculture, agri-food, seafood processing and other key industries will be allowed to travel to Canada under exemptions being put in place to the air travel restrictions that took effect on March 18.
… California and Arizona also relied heavily on migrant workers and while some may be able to return to their positions, some won’t. Replacement of those who don’t return could be problematic … the same applies here just on a smaller scale …
The government announcement continued … allowing foreign workers to enter Canada recognizes their vital importance to … food security for Canadians and the success of Canadian food producers. The arrival of farm workers and fish/seafood workers is essential to ensure that planting and harvesting activities can take place.
To alleviate any concerns some Canadians might have, about people entering Canada since borders were closed, and overseas flights were cancelled, they also indicated … in addition to health screening protocols before travel, all individuals entering from abroad must isolate for 14 days upon their arrival in Canada.
According to B.C.’s Agriculture Minister, “To safeguard health and food security, temporary foreign workers in the agriculture sector will be allowed under specific conditions to travel to Canada.”
Popham continued, “I will be redoubling my efforts and working closely with key stakeholders and decision-makers – including foreign governments and the provincial health officer of B.C. – to help farmers and processors safely employ the foreign farm workers they need. This is an urgent matter and with the proper precautions in place, it will benefit all British Columbians, as we all need access to safe, fresh, local food.”
Moving on to farmers markets, which many people have questioned, Popham has stated that at least as of now farmers markets can continue to operate.
Stated Popham, “The Ministry of Agriculture is working directly with the B.C. Association of Farmers’ Markets to assist with this season, and I’m pleased to share that the ministry will be providing financial support for it to develop an operating model better suited to times of a pandemic.
“Farmers in B.C. are a fundamental part of our food system, and farmers markets come in many shapes and sizes. Regrettably, at this time, the COVID-19 pandemic means they will not be about socializing and community.
“They will be focused on serving a very important purpose, though: helping people all over this province access fresh, locally grown or raised meat and other proteins, vegetables, fruit and many more foods and beverages. I want to thank everyone who works in the farm, fish and food sector – you are critical, and we appreciate you”!
A small grower whom I spoke with a few days prior to the provincial and federal announcements said to me that the COVID-19 issue wasn’t one with just local problems, but that … California and Arizona also relied heavily on migrant workers and while some may be able to return to there positions some won’t. Replacement of those who don’t return could be problematic … and that… the same applies here just on a smaller scale.
This individual told me that they rely on World Wide Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOFERs), or International Farm Stay individuals, but that he has heard from no one this year and likely won’t. Local help is hard to come by as the pay is low and the work can be hard and monotonous. I have one returnee…the rest falls on me.
Reading a story last week in the Washington Post, it seemed that at least some foreign workers would be returning to the U.S. to work the fields:
The (American Farm Bureau) federation said it is working with the Trump administration to find safe, practical ways to admit farm laborers as emergency workers under the H-2A guest worker program … many seasonal workers will still be granted entry … State Department is allowing laborers with previous work experience in the United States and who do not require in-person interviews to return, according to the federation. In 2019, 258,000 migrant workers received H-2A visas, the vast majority of whom were from Mexico.
However, elsewhere I saw that today (March 25) the American Department of Agriculture was working on a bill to provide $9.5 billion to … address the economic effects of a COVID-19 downturn on sectors of agriculture ranging from livestock producers dealing with volatile markets, to farmers, who are losing business as states and localities close farmers markets and restaurants.
… if people shop responsibly, we’ll all get through this with our nutritional needs satisfied …
And as for British Columbians growing at least some of their own food? Well, it wouldn’t be a bad idea, however it’s not likely the most practical solution. As anyone who already does it, or has in the past knows, gardening is work … and it takes time and commitment.
The simple answer they said is to support your local growers.
“However, on the flip side,” they stated, “do we have capacity to satisfy our community’s needs?”
“We don’t have a lot of growers in the immediate area. Mind you if they saw public support, they might just increase capacity… but that needs workers and that could be the major issue.”
All of that, of course, is going to be dependent on the numbers of migrant workers who actually arrive in Canada, and where they end up locating.
As to what the people of B.C. should grow, if they were to do so?
“Potatoes, carrots, Swiss chard (doesn’t go to seed as easy) beans, tomatoes (freeze / can) are all good bets to grow at home … beets, summer and winter squashes.
“Crucifers (ie: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, bok choy, arugula, Brussels sprouts, collards, and watercress) take too much work… except for cabbage. Corn doesn’t give you enough bang for the buck. Leaf lettuces on successive sowings can go right into fall.”
Then he went on to say … just remember, it’s not just a plant and wait scenario; gardens need to be worked … regularly.
We should NOT be fearful in discussing the food supply for B.C. residents. While we may well see shortages … if people shop responsibly, we’ll all get through this with our nutritional needs satisfied.
And as Lana Popham said … “Thank you for helping us all get through this.”
Alan Forseth is a Kamloops resident and former member of the Reform Party of Canada and the B.C. Reform Party, and a past and current member of the BC Conservative Party. His blog is My Thoughts on Politics and More.