Far from home, these foreign farm workers are happy to be helping agriculture in the Okanagan - InfoNews

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Far from home, these foreign farm workers are happy to be helping agriculture in the Okanagan

From left to right: Annika Langner, Danny Kiatipis, Alex Bauer and Alex Heartman will enjoy a fruit picking season in Lake Country after a hectic journey to get here.
April 10, 2020 - 7:00 AM

A group of foreign workers who have already settled into a routine on a Central Okanagan farm say they'd rather be in Canada working than stuck elsewhere, regardless of COVID-19.

Annika Langner, from Germany, and her Canadian boyfriend Danny Kiatipis have spent the last six months picking apples in Australia.

Without a permanent home in Germany, Langner said they’re going with the flow working at a farm in Lake Country. Couple Alex Heartman and Alex Bauer, also from Germany, were travelling in South America before coming to Canada to work at the same farm as Langer and Kiatipis.

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All have worked in the Okanagan previously. Though their journeys to get here were difficult amid border closures and with the uncertainty about whether foreign workers would even be allowed in the country, they’re happy to be in the Okanagan.

Kiatipis has been working at the farm during the fruit-picking season since 2012, while Langner has worked a previous season at the orchard. She also has a degree in agriculture and also had an internship at Summerhill Pyramid Winery.

Eventually, the pair may want to make Canada home.

"All of us wanted to come work here,” Langner said.

Bauer said the farm has a nice atmosphere and she would rather be stuck in Canada during a pandemic than in Germany, saying there’s more space in the Okanagan and she doesn't to be around as many people.

“We don’t have a flat at home. We have virtually nothing, also no work. For us it was clear to come back and do this work” Heartman said.

The workers aren’t concerned at this time as they're waiting to see what happens with the pandemic.

Langner, Heartman and Bauer are currently using the Temporary Foreign Worker program, a Canadian immigration option that allows individuals who are neither a Canadian citizen nor a permanent resident to work in Canada in positions that are facing labour shortages and are unfilled by Canadians. Langner is on a one-year visa while Heartman and Bauer have two years.

The three foreign workers and Kiatipis managed to get into the country in March, after the federal government announced temporary foreign workers would be exempt from travel restrictions.

READ MORE: Okanagan orchards and farms still short on labour after foreign workers allowed

While the Okanagan hires about 4,500 foreign workers — mostly from Mexico and the Caribbean — they don’t come all at once. Some of them are needed now for planting and some pruning but the bulk of them aren’t needed until mid-June. That’s when the labour-intensive apple thinning work is done. That’s followed shortly after by the start of the cherry harvest, said Glen Lucas, manager with the BC Fruit Growers Association.

Once the province gives its approval it will take a few days to arrange for charter flights as commercial travel is still prohibited. That means organizing growers and logistical problems that could delay any arrivals for a week or two, Lucas said.

Another 3,000 workers usually arrive from Quebec and from other countries (the latter are referred to as backpackers). It’s unclear how many, if any of them, will come this year.

“We are expecting a worker shortage,” Lucas said in a previous interview.

“We’re hoping we can encourage local workers to take an interest in our industry. It’s hard work. It’s often long hours during harvest season, but, when it’s ready to be harvested it needs to be picked in the shortest time possible.

“There was so much effort to get the visas, it’s a lengthy process and it’s not cheap either,” Kiatipis said.

“It would have been not so nice if it was all for nothing,” Langner said.

After the picking season ends, the couple is interested in working in Australia, but will likely stay in Canada given the current circumstances. Right now, the group is taking each day one step at a time.

READ MORE: Why Okanagan orchardists may have to rely more on local labour this year

“Here it’s nice, especially in the summer,” Heartman said.

They also want to shed some light on their experiences working with other foreign workers, many of whom are using the shorter seasonal agricultural worker program. They said there are some misconceptions they’ve seen that they want to address.

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“Migrant workers are very hard working… working with them compared to some other people, there’s a different mentality,” Kiatipis said. “They're happy to do the work, they’re happy to work the long days.”

“We come here because this is what we want to do for a living. We’re not coming here just to make money and leave again. I think there’s a lot of negative images about migrant workers right now,” Langner said.

It's tough work and not everyone wants to do it, she said. "There's a bit of underestimating how hard the work is and how positive your mindset has to be."

To contact a reporter for this story, email Carli Berry or call 250-864-7494 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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