Foreign workers for Okanagan farms, orchards still aren't allowed to travel to Canada | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Foreign workers for Okanagan farms, orchards still aren't allowed to travel to Canada

Temporary foreign workers are needed now to plant cherries and other fruit trees, not just at harvest time.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Okanagan farms and orchards were expecting big news last night and thought they got it when the federal government said it would allow temporary foreign workers to continue working in Canada, despite border closures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

But the statement was later clarified that those foreign workers are Americans only and that means it's doubtful 4,500 workers from Mexico and the Caribbean will hit the ground this season, leaving local agriculture in a desperate situation. 

National agriculture associations are working with the federal government to get that changed with some hope that it will be approved today, Glen Lucas, the executive director of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association told today.

Until then, growers like David Geen, owner of Coral Beach Farms — the largest grower of cherries in Canada — is worried.

“What I can tell you is that the economic impact is very real,” Geen said. “It’s not just harvesting the crop. It’s planting the crop. If the trees need to be pruned, that’s underway. Beehives have to be brought into the orchard and you have to apply fertilizer, etc.”

His most immediate concern is to bring in 45 workers to plant new land. He grew the seedlings himself and they are in cold storage and need to be planted by early April.

The hope is, if workers are allowed in, they will be isolated on farms for 14 days but be able to work. That has not yet been agreed to by the federal government.

Lucas said some foreign workers are already here, especially in the labour-intensive grape sector which has about 70 per cent of its foreign workforce.

The recent shutdown of a couple of greenhouses put about 250 Guatemalans out of work.

“They were like gold,” Lucas noted.

The Okanagan fruit industry employs about 4,500 Mexican and Caribbean workers through the Temporary Foreign Workers program, Lucas said. The bulk of those are needed for harvest season, which starts in June for cherries.

Another 1,500 “backpackers” come from other countries and can work in Canada if they get work visas before arriving. Lucas is worried they won’t show up this year.

Another 1,500 travel out from Quebec. It’s, again, unclear if they will come this year.

In theory, local people thrown out of work by the COVID-19 pandemic could be trained to work in orchards, Lucas said. Traditionally, not many people have been willing to do such hard physical labour, he noted.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 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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