"Our challenge right now is being able to get them here in time to start our planting season"

It’s always been important for us as farmers to get our crops in the ground on time in the spring. But it’s never been more important than it is this year when we are facing the extraordinary circumstance of a global pandemic that has turned all of our lives upside down.

by Kevin Howe, Howe Family Farms

On our farm near Aylmer, south of London, we grow strawberries, watermelon, pumpkins, sweet corn and squash. Most of what we grow is sold to grocery stores and ends up on the dinner tables of people across Ontario – our strawberries in the spring, and our other crops throughout the summer and into fall as they ripen and are ready for harvest.

Although harvest is a busy time for us, so is the spring because that’s when all the work happens to get our crops planted so they can grow throughout the season. All of our crops need a certain number of weeks and months to grow and ripen, and if we don’t plant in time, they won’t be ready for harvest by the time fall weather hits.

For example, we start seeding our watermelon plants in the greenhouse in early April – if we miss that window and seed them late, we won’t have a long enough growing season for the fruit to ripen. Unfortunately, Mother Nature works to her own timeline; unlike manufacturing or other types of production, we can’t just delay or shift what we do or extend our growing season on the other end.

On our farm, we have a core team of 18 seasonal workers who come from St Vincent and Trinidad and Tobago to our farm every year. We also have 40 to 45 local seasonal employees as well as many local workers who help with strawberry picking on weekends during peak harvest – and we’re always willing to hire more.

Many of our seasonal workers have become like family to us and I’ve visited them in their home countries. We have set up a Facebook group for them as they wait to come here so we could learn more about how they are feeling and what their worries and fears are about this situation.

Overwhelmingly, they want to come, but our challenge right now is being able to get them here in time to start our planting season. At the same time, we know how vitally important it is to protect public health and the safety of our family and our workers, and the need for people coming into Canada to self-isolate by staying inside and away from others for two weeks.

Farms, though, aren’t like many other workplaces. Our farm is in a rural area and our fields are large so our employees can easily work outdoors while still respecting self-isolation and distancing rules. For example, four people working in different areas one of our 20-acre fields is like having one person standing on each corner of a city block – or the equivalent of about 217,000 square feet per worker.

So we don’t have the same necessity to keep people indoors during self-isolation as other individuals and businesses do. And in all honesty, we don’t have two weeks to lose when it comes to getting started with field work.

On our farm, we grow about 11 million pounds of food every year. If we don’t get our workers quickly, that amount will be cut in half. In other years, if we’ve had problems with weather for example, Canada could easily rely on other countries to make up the shortfall.

But COVID-19 is a global problem and farmers and countries around the world are facing the same challenges we are. This means we won’t necessarily be able to rely on other countries as we have in the past when we are dealing with shortages.

Farming is a risky business at the best of times. Scaling back production now is probably the best decision I could make for my mental, physical and economic well-being. But scaling back food production is the last thing I think we should be doing in a time of crisis. Unfortunately, we won’t have any other option if the government doesn't act quickly. We need our experienced workforce here as soon as possible.

It’s never been more important for Canada have food security – the ability to grow the food we need to feed ourselves and stay healthy. As a farmer, I’m certainly ready and willing to step up to this challenge, but we need practical tools and solutions to be able to do so.

For more information:
Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Grower's Association
www.ofvga.org

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