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‘A month behind’: B.C. farmers grapple with labour shortage amid COVID-19

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B.C. farmers face severe labour shortage due to COVID-19 – May 29, 2020

B.C. farmers say they’re falling behind on the season as they grapple with a shortage of between 6,000 and 8,000 workers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Terry Michell, owner-operator of Michell’s Farm in Saanichton, says he has half a million plants still waiting to get in the ground, along with backlogs on weeding and irrigation.

“It’s highly skilled farm labour,” he said. “We have six of our foreign workers out of 20.”

READ MORE: Four temporary foreign workers in British Columbia test positive for COVID-19

Another 11 of Michell’s temporary foreign workers (TFW) workers landed at Vancouver International Airport on Friday, but will have to spend two weeks in quarantine before they can hit the fields.

The federal government exempted foreign workers from COVID-19 travel restrictions in April, provided they isolate for 14 days on arrival.

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The screening has been a success, at least so far — catching a handful of cases in isolation, and preventing further TFW outbreaks like the one seen at a West Kelowna nursery in April.

Michell said getting that process in place has had a province-wide impact.

“We’re still probably a month behind on our regular amount of workers that come into B.C.,” he said.

Agriculture Minister Lana Popham told Global News that with a process now in place to get temporary foreign workers into the province, the labour shortage should ease by the peak of farm season.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: N.B. farmers relieved over lifting of temporary foreign worker ban

But she said in the interim, the province is hoping locals can fill the gap.

“We’re really trying to appeal to our own British Columbian workers to come and join us in the agriculture, fish and food sector,” said Popham.

Popham said B.C.’s agriculture sector already includes about 63,000 domestic workers, while the province usually relies on up to 13,000 labourers from out of country every year.

The province has launched a new online portal, BCAgJobs, aimed at connecting locals with openings in food production.

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But not everyone in industry is confident locals want the jobs — at least right now.

Sukuhpaul Bal, president of the B.C. Cherry Association said attracting British Columbians to low-wage picking jobs is a tough sell, especially when they are already receiving $2,000 a month in government assistance.

“There needs to be an incentive for people to get out there, and right now the incentive is for people not to go work,” said Bal.

READ MORE: COVID-19 outbreak among foreign workers declared over at Bylands Nurseries

“The government should be preparing something where people can continue to receive that, but we want you to get out and work and we’re not going to be clawing back the CERB payment, come up with a formula.”

Back in Saanichton, Michell says he’s had some success bringing on local workers, but the process comes with its own challenges, including training green workers who’ve never hit the fields.

And now that some sectors of the economy are getting back to business, he says he’s losing some of those freshly trained employees.

“Some of the locals are starting to find their jobs are coming back on line,” he said. “And some are leaving us when we want to actually up it if we can.”

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