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Coronavirus: Uncertainty over temporary foreign workers worries Atlantic farmers

N.S. farmers awaiting confirmation regarding temporary foreign workers
WATCH: Farmers are awaiting confirmation that the temporary foreign workers they depend on to plant and harvest crops will still be permitted to enter the country. Jeremy Keefe has more.

The impacts of the global novel coronavirus pandemic are wide-spread and have now brought uncertainty and worry over the nation’s food supply.

Those who know what it takes to feed the nation best — farmers — say they are concerned about how shutdowns at the border may affect their ability to produce food.

READ MORE: N.S. bans evictions while committing funds to Feed Nova Scotia, income assistance

“Right now farmers are feeling a lot of stress, especially in the fruit and veg industry,” said Katie Keddy who runs Charles Keddy Farms in the Annapolis Valley with her husband Phillip.

That stress stems directly from the upcoming harvest season, during which Nova Scotia typically brings in around 1,500 temporary foreign workers. Farmers remain uncertain about whether or not border closures due to conronavirus will keep those workers from arriving in Canada.

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Many temporary migrants are labourers who are highly skilled, fill important roles, operate heavy machinery and in many cases lead work crews.

READ MORE: Trudeau closes Canadian borders to most foreign travellers amid coronavirus outbreak

“We, right now, are in a crucial time because spring is coming fast and we have jobs that have to get done in a certain time frame,” she explained.

Temporary foreign workers have been a staple in the Keddy’s operations for nearly 30 years.

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In the early 1990s, a shortage of local workers put the massive producer of strawberries and sweet potatoes nearly out of business.

Food banks report supply shortages
Food banks report supply shortages

Although they still employ some locals, temporary foreign workers bridged the gap and made the family farm that provides food for thousands sustainable once again.

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“That’s why many farms have gone to offshore labour,” explained Phillip Keddy, who grew up on the farm which was then run by his father Charles.

“With the scale of farms these days and how we’ve been kind of groomed to run on efficiencies, our profit margins are very small and we make money by being as efficient as we can.”

“If we’re relying on having to train all new local labour, we’re going to lose those efficiencies and our costs are just going to go up.”

WATCH: Keddy Farms on Global News Morning

Businesses of all types are far from resting easy in all the uncertainty but agriculture, in particular, is an industry that would bring wide-ranging implications should their production be impacted.

“We need to be producing food, because if people are laid off work they still need to eat.”

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Temporary foreign workers tend to crops at Charles Keddy Farms in Annapolis Valley, NS
Temporary foreign workers tend to crops at Charles Keddy Farms in Annapolis Valley, NS Katie Keddy / Charles Keddy Farms

They say it goes beyond the need for producing food, given that the temporary foreign worker program is a mutually beneficial one for Canada and the countries the labourers come from.

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Some stay as long as eight months before returning to Jamaica, Mexico and other countries where the money they’ve earned in Canada goes much further.

Meanwhile, during their time in Canada, they pay the same taxes as Canadian citizens, as well as buy food and goods from local businesses.

It’s also not a program rolled out haphazardly as employers are required to provide a place to live for their workers, one more reason why the Keddys believe an exemption is more than justified.

“We do have the resources to quarantine,” explained Katie. “We have four residences right now where we can house a certain number of guys in each residence.”

READ MORE: NSHA advising potential COVID-19 exposure at 2 Halifax locations

The Keddys say that whatever comes they’ll face it head-on and continue to feed people and do their part to ensure the food security of the province and country aren’t drastically impacted.

The question is will that be more difficult than ever or will adjustments be made to allow their operations to go ahead at a crucial time?

“It’s been two years for a lot of farms of hard growing seasons,” explained Katie. “Late frost or Dorian, and we’ve pulled through.”

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“I truly have faith that at the end of this we will come out on the other side, we will come out okay,” she went on. “But the stress right now… we just want to feed people.”

Talks are ongoing to ensure the border closures don’t negatively affect essential services, including the food supply. But Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil says the province is also looking into programs that could help place students and those who find themselves out of work in these roles.

“Strawberry plants are on their way and they will be required to be in the ground, otherwise we’ll lose them,” McNeil said “So we’re working with the national government about whether or not we’ll be able to have workers come in and further off how do we create our own program internally to support Nova Scotians who may be finding it difficult right now.”

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