The Ontario agriculture and food industry including farmers, manufacturers and retailers has been highly successful on implementing new technologies for higher productivity.
However, food production from the farm field through delivery to the consumer still requires a heavy labour component. The current pandemic has taught us that food production must continue and securing workers to meet on-going demands has been a challenge for farmers and government.
Across Ontario, nearly 20,000 migrant farm workers are employed for planting through to harvest season with a high percentage already arriving for 2021.
In late March, the Ontario government indicated they wanted migrant farm workers arriving into the province to immediately receive COVID-19 vaccinations. Ontario’s Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Barbara Yaffe noted the province may step in to complete inoculations if the federal government does not.
On April 10, 2021, a pilot project offering the Moderna vaccine to arriving workers after clearing customs was implemented at Toronto Pearson International Airport. Individuals were also screened as required for COVID-19 prior to the vaccine.
In 2020, more than 1,780 workers tested positive across Ontario and three died from the virus. Ontario Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Minister Ernie Hardeman stated it is critical that everyone takes every step possible to protect worker health and ensure all food businesses can continue operating. Owners and employees on farms are essential workers on the front lines of the pandemic and need our collective support.
Jennifer Pfenning of Pfenning’s Organic Farm near New Hamburg told CTV News in mid-March they expect 47 migrant workers this year under processes and rules marginally different than past seasons. She stressed the importance of vaccines and approached the Region of Waterloo regarding mobile services to farmers.
When asked about the necessity of hiring migrant workers, Pfenning speculated that we have not designated food with the economic measure it deserves, along with not providing farm work with an appropriate value.
In the final analysis, food production remains a national, provincial and local priority and all relevant issues will require a high level of collaboration and cooperation to move forward with solutions. The industry simply cannot shut down.
Written by Art Sinclair