The Thwaites family of fruit and vegetable growers was still waiting Tuesday morning to hear when their seasonal farm workers, so essential to their operation, will arrive.
There was no date set yet for when the workers are coming, says Nelson Thwaites. “We are still waiting with figures crossed.”
Growers have been told once the paperwork is in place, the planes could start arriving quickly, and they should be prepared.
When the federal government announced early last week that due to the COVID-19 virus, the border was being closed to all but Canadians, with limited exceptions, seasonal farm workers were not included in those exceptions. However, by Friday, the government agreed the workers are essential to the country’s food supply, and growers were relieved to hear they would be allowed into the country.
By Tuesday morning, there was still no word about when they would arrive, although there was some expectation they would be here this week.
Nelson Thwaites and his brothers Graham and Corbin are the fourth generation to operate the family farm, with their father John still involved and ready with advice. Nelson hopes they will be here soon. Trees need pruning now, not weeks from now.
“CanAg (the travel service that arranges flights for the seasonal workers to Canada), has buses and flights at both ends ready to go,” he says.
About 28,000 workers were expected to arrive in Ontario alone, many last week, the majority over the next two weeks. Thwaites says he thinks the ‘powers that be’ were confusing various programs for temporary workers.
At first it seemed the confusion was over Mexican workers who might be allowed to come through the U.S., but not those flying in from the Caribbean. Then it seemed they were all in the same predicament.
He is refraining from calling provincial growers’ associations who are working to persuade the government to lift the restriction, he says. “We’re trying not to barrage them all with phone calls. We know everyone is pulling in the same direction.”
The Thwaites’ 500-acre farm, mostly in Niagara-
on-the-Lake and head-quartered on Firelane 11, includes peaches, nectarines, grapes and pears. Recently the farm was enlarged to include an operation in Norfolk County, adding asparagus to their products.
Thwaites had been expecting 42 farm workers to fly in last Thursday evening, and in previous years, they would be spending their first day getting food, phones and going to the bank. Then, by Saturday, they’d have been out in the fields, doing the work they are not only trained for, but physically accustomed to doing.
He knows when they get here, the 14-day isolation they will have to undergo means they can’t leave the farm to go to town, but as he understands the rules, they’ll be able to work in the orchards. Pruning peach trees is what is awaiting them when they arrive.
But as of this Tuesday, the growers still had not received protocols on how the isolation is to be handled.
Last week, he began hiring locals who are interested in working, and every morning, he and Graham were spending time training small groups of those who arrive, before heading out to the orchard to prune.
It’s not a great solution, he says. It’s work that requires training, and is physically extremely demanding, especially for those not accustomed to it. Not all last the day, and others don’t come back the next day. “Pruning hardwood is hard work,” he says.
“To put into perspective, it takes about 100,000 man-hours to grow and harvest the farm’s produce,” says Thwaites.
He has spoken to other NOTL growers whose workers arrived before the travel ban, and they feel bad about what their neighbours are experiencing, he says.
Thwaites was discouraged about the lack of information being broadcast to the public about how vital the seasonal employees are to the country’s food chain.
The U.S., which supplies Canada before our local crops are ready, are in the same situation, he says — the U.S. borders were also closed to temporary farmworkers. And American growers don’t plan for shipping crops to Canada once ours are ready for harvest.
Although the Thwaites are doing their best to keep up with the work at hand now, there is no way they would have been able to keep up. If seasonal workers had not been allowed into the country, he expected he would have to “spray off the trees and wait for next year.”
That means killing the buds to protect the orchards, with no crop to harvest this year. The farm would survive without a crop for 2020, and they would hope for a good year next year.
But that’s a plan he is not expecting to have to put into place.
While he waits, Thwaites has sourced food and supplies for the 42 men he hopes to see soon, and once he hears they’re on their way, he will make sure their supplies are ready for them when they arrive, he says. All their houses are stocked already with toilet paper, he adds.
Most of the workers come with phones, and can use the Wi-fi that is available for them, and those who have bank accounts will be paid by direct deposit. That will carry them through the 14-day isolation period.
“We’re concerned about the virus, the same as anyone else is,” he says.
But he feels confident when the workers get here and stay on the farm, everyone will be safe, and there will be a crop to harvest this year.