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How Okanagan locals can get work in seasonal agriculture

Hundreds of people come from Quebec to work as fruit pickers in the Okanagan, but why don't locals find the jobs appealing?
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
May 18, 2017 - 8:00 PM

OKANAGAN - For those looking for summer work, seasonal agriculture work could be your calling.

From advertisements on local farm websites, or other online platforms such as Craigslist or Kijiji, open positions in the agriculture industry are out there, you just have to look for them.

“We start hiring in January, and by this time, we’re almost full for employment openings,” David Geen, president of Jealous Fruit Ltd. and Coral Beach Farms said. “Our biggest tool is our website, however we do advertise on Kijiji and other platforms as well.”

In order to qualify for the Seasonal Agriculture Worker Program, Geen says by law he has to hire as many Canadians as he can. In order to prove attempts are being made to adhere to this, advertising is required.

According to Geen, the average rate earned by a picker is $18 per hour, however for those who really hustle, they can make up to $35 per hour. Those who struggle with the physically demanding labour will make closer to minimum wage, and will usually end up quitting, he said.

Although it’s rugged work, the job does have its perks. Workers are up picking around 5 a.m., but that means they’re finished by midday.

“Our farm is right across from the lake, so after work most people will go swimming and are able to enjoy the Okanagan summer,” Geen said.

But that's actually part of the reason Geen and others in the industry have trying to entice locals.

“Summer in the Okanagan is pretty special,” he said. “Folks really treasure that time, and being able to take time off during it, unfortunately for us our peak season is right in the middle of it.”

Geen said it surprises him that more locals don’t look for work in the agriculture sector.

“I’m a bit mystified why we can attract a kid from Moncton, but can’t attract locals,” he said. “A part of it might be that Okanagan, and Kelowna particularly, is quite an affluent region. If your dad has already bought you a car, you probably don’t need to pick cherries.”

Coral Beach Farms is a large cherry farm in Lake Country. Last year, the farm hired just over 800 workers and of those, about half are Mexican workers on the Seasonal Agriculture Worker Program. About two thirds of the remaining half are Canadian, while the rest are international backpackers.

His full time staff, however, such as administrative workers and tractor drivers, are locals.

For Jennifer Bellmann, of Bellmann Specialty Produce, local workers keep her farm going.

“There’s a lot of costs associated with hiring migrant workers,” Bellmann says. “It’s not as simple as saying 'yeah you’re hired,' you have to pay for flights, work visas, accommodation, trips to town - it’s a huge cost.”

Bellmann and her husband have been running the 33-acre farm for the past 12 years and considers herself lucky they’ve been able to hire locally.

“I haven’t had to go any other route, and so far I don’t plan to,” she says. “We’ve had people come back five, six years in a row, as long as they want a job, they have one.”

Bellmann says the majority of her workers are university students, as the timing works well with student schedules.

“That means September is a struggle, we’re already looking for people to work in the fall.”

According to Bellmann, a great way to apply for an agriculture job is to visit the farm.

“We advertise everywhere, from community features, to Kijiji to every job board around,” she said. “But word of mouth is huge. Drive around, stop by a farm that you like the look of and drop off a resumé.”

If you are looking to drop off a resumé, you should dress the part, Bellmann said.

“Dress appropriately,” she said. “Treat it seriously, because this is my business so it’s serious to me.”

However, Bellmann said there is a stigma around farm work that she thinks prevents more locals from applying.

“It’s an industry people don’t seem to know a lot about,” she said. “Yes we get dirty when we work - of course we do, but it’s not a dirty industry.”

She said the reason many people don't look for work in the field could be more fundamental.

“It think it’s because it’s right here, in our own backyard that people don’t see the opportunities. It’s not new or an adventure to them,” she said. “When you grow up around something, you almost become numb to it.”

You might find some of these links helpful if you want to check it out further.


To contact a reporter for this story, email Jenna Hickman 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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News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2017
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