Early Okanagan growing season a set of moving goal posts for local farmers

OKANAGAN - Out of country workers are proving invaluable this year as the Okanagan experiences one of the earliest growing seasons in recent memory.

Fred Steele, president of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association, says some crops are nearly a month early, which has created some labour challenges.

“The students normally out of school at the end of June, they’re needed now,” Steele says.

He estimates several thousand Canadian students typically work in orchards, picking ripe fruit, in the summertime. With that portion of the labour force stuck in the classroom, Steele says Seasonal Agricultural Workers are proving indispensable.

“Without those employees, we’d be in real trouble,” he says. “They’re filling the gap, and they fill the gap anyway, but the importance of that is really being demonstrated right now.”

A couple thousand seasonal workers have already arrived, and more will come this summer. Paperwork for temporary foreign workers must be filed months in advance, and if the early harvest seasons continue, Steele says farmers will have to consider requesting crews earlier.

“People are saying what is this? Is this the new normal, or a huge El Nino? I don’t think we really know yet. I have my suspicions because I see it getting earlier and earlier,” he says.

Seasonal agricultural workers must be from Mexico or certain Caribbean countries and can remain in Canada for eight months. Knowing what dates to request workers for is always challenging, but a season like this really throws things off, Steele says.

“The good part is the farming community is one of the most adaptable industries there is. People are close to the land and can see what’s coming and prepare. You can prepare a week early, but three weeks to a month… How do you plan for the planning process when the goal posts just changed? They’ve actually put them in another stadium now, it’s crazy,” Steele says.

If the trend continues, he says they might have to revisit the temporary foreign worker program to match the pace.

“If we get another year of this we need to say, ‘is this the new normal?’ The trouble is you could make a myriad of changes and then have employees standing around for a month,” he says.

Aside from labour, he says getting products packaged, shipped and exported ahead of schedule will also be challenging, but doable.

“If someone phoned you and told you there was a load of plump, ripe cherries, it wouldn’t matter if it was first of July or December — you’d be happy. We just have to make sure the process works its way through the system and adapts to the changes as required,” Steele says.

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