The relatively dry spring has seen farmers already on their fields in some parts of the Valley, however the COVID-19 pandemic and the ripple effect it is having throughout the sector has meant foreign agricultural workers coming to Quebec will be delayed, if they arrive at all.
“Of my 12 workers, there is currently only one on the list of Mexicans available to travel,” says Laurie-Ann Prevost, the owner of Rockburn Orchards in Hinchinbrooke. To complicate the matter even further, the one employee cleared to fly can only arrive in September according to his work visa. The two employees who normally arrive in May to help prune apple trees are not on the current fly list, and a new list is not expected to be issued by FERME (the organization that manages the recruitment of foreign agriculture workers in Quebec) until the first week of May.
“What worries us the most is not being able to harvest the apples in the fall,” says Prevost, suggesting her operation would have to hire a lot of people to pick fruit in a short period of time. Pruning is also a huge concern, as trees left unpruned produce slightly greener apples. “We are hoping, if this continues and is generalized for many apple producers in Quebec, the quality standards for apples will be a little more forgiving this fall,” she says, noting that a greener or small apple is just as tasty.
According to FERME, farmers are going to have to contend with such uncertainty this spring, as the likelihood that all expected foreign workers will be able to come is relatively small. “Everything is more complicated and more complex,” says an update sent by the organization to Quebec farmers on April 15. For example, workers can only fly into Canada on chartered flights because airports are currently closed to international commercial flights. The workers need to be cleared to travel by their home country, and their health needs to be monitored throughout the process from departure to arrival. All of the workers will receive protective equipment including thermometers and will be asked to wear a mask on board the plane. Upon arrival, all workers will be required to self-quarantine for two weeks, while practising social distancing from one another. This alone will add extra pressure on farmers, some of whom will be forced to find additional housing for their workers, and will have to manage their farms without help for at least two weeks.
Amy Tolhurst, of Tolhurst Farms in Howick, is expecting her two workers from Guatemala to arrive this week but has no guarantee their flight will not be delayed or rescheduled. She reports having spoken with the workers to request grocery lists to stock the house where both men will be quarantined when they arrive by chartered bus from the airport. “It is very clear too that we will have to monitor their health,” says Tolhurst, adding there is a register they will have to complete and sign each day. Another thing that has been made abundantly clear to Tolhurst is that the farm and its workers will also be monitored “by all levels of authority” from government, to public health and the Sûreté du Québec.
“The future of the program is at stake,” FERME warns in its communications, suggesting producers who do not respect the mandatory quarantine period and social distancing protocols will be punished and that the program could be cancelled. “The whole food supply chain would be shot if that were to happen,” Tolhurst says.
The provincial government recently announced funding of $1,500 per foreign farm worker to cover salaries during the two-week quarantine period, as well as other incentives for Quebecers to work in the fields this summer.