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Okanagan facing shortage of agricultural workers

Okanagan experiencing shortage of agricultural workers
The Okanagan agriculture industry, especially orchards and farms, is struggling to find enough workers to harvest their crops.

The Okanagan agriculture industry, especially orchards and farms, is struggling to find enough workers to harvest their crops.

“There are usually 10,000 individuals that come to pick fruits from Mexico or the Caribbean,” said Amarjit Lalli, a member of the B.C. Tree Fruit board of directors.

“This year because of COVID-19, less flights and the visa restrictions, we’re probably going to see a decline of around 30 per cent. There’s a real shortage of labour.”

Read more: Quarantine order issued for South Okanagan farm after 2 COVID-19 cases confirmed

Worker shortages are so severe that some growers aren’t able to harvest all of their crops.

“There are farmers out there that are looking at their crop and just harvesting what they can and the rest is being left on the trees,” said Lalli.

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Lalli says coronavirus restrictions and regulations have slowed the whole process down — starting with the mandatory 14-day isolation period imposed when workers do arrive.

Lalli said the restrictions on housing due to physical-distancing rules create “productivity issues at the farm level.”

Read more: ‘Real threat to food security’ — pandemic blamed for drop in Okanagan’s fruit production

One local Okanagan grower, Arshdeep Dhaliwal, says his orchard in Lake Country has definitely felt the effects.

“It’s become very apparent this year. We usually get a lot of local labour and from Quebec. This year due to COVID, we’ve had a hard time finding labour.”

Dhaliwal says with the labour shortage, the timing of the season has been thrown off.

“With the shortage of workers, we found picking has been extended,” said Dhaliwal.

“A lot of the variety, by an extended amount, starts losing its integrity and the fruit starts to soften. Sometimes the fruit is too far gone and there is no point picking it anymore.”

Read more: ‘There’s always a risk’ — Cherry growing in the Okanagan a high-stakes gamble

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To help with the worker shortage, the Ministry of Agriculture has created a new web portal — called the farm, fish and food job connector — to fast-track hirings.

Dhaliwal and Lalli are calling upon British Columbians to help out the industry. They say if locals cannot help with labour, they can help by buying more locally grown products.