Okanagan fruit growers need locals to help bring in the harvest | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Okanagan fruit growers need locals to help bring in the harvest

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The good news for Okanagan fruit growers struggling to find labour, is the cherry crop will likely be smaller and ready for picking later this summer than it has been the past two years.

But with COVID-19 restricting the number of workers from outside B.C., the bad news is fruit growers are very stressed about getting their crops off, with cherry picking already started in the South Okanagan.

“We’re just at the stage where we really have to decide whether we launch a real earnest campaign to get able bodied local workers out on the farms, just to save the crop,” Glen Lucas the general manager of the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association said after hearing that Mexico was temporarily stopping workers from coming to Canada.

“Temporary foreign workers form a base,” he said, “It’s not the whole work force. We hire a lot of local people. We hire a lot of Quebec people. We hire backpackers (people from other countries who travel with work visas). Now we will pretty much have to hire anyone who we can get.”

Mexico announced yesterday, June 15, that it would stop its citizens from coming to Canada after two workers died of COVID-19 in Ontario.

READ MORE: Mexico hits pause on sending temporary foreign workers after COVID-19 deaths

Lucas heard from the Mexican consulate in Vancouver today that the pause does not apply to B.C. for two reasons.

One is that the B.C. government is supervising the quarantine of all incoming workers. The other is that housing is inspected before the workers arrive to make sure it complies with COVID-19 rules around things like safe distancing and hand washing.

Still, that doesn’t take away from the fact that workers were late coming to the Okanagan because of COVID-19 and there are problems in Mexico with buses not always running or offices not being open.

“Recently we had to cancel two charter flights because the workers didn’t show up,” Lucas said.

Quebecers and backpackers are also in short supply, he said, and growers are “very concerned about having adequate workers.”

The association’s hiring agent had a call for 10 workers on a farm yesterday and was unable to find any. That’s worrisome particularly as the peak labour need is coming in early July with the cherry crop ripening.

The cherry crop was early for the last two years. Cooler weather this spring is making the crop smaller and later this year, which may be a good thing in that it allows for more time to bring in more workers.

While many local people are unemployed because of COVID-19 most of them are collecting $2,000 per month from the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit.

They can still earn up to an additional $1,000 per month without the benefit being clawed back and Lucas is hoping the government will grant a larger exemption to farm workers.

“Agriculture is so seasonal and sensitive to labour,” he said. “It would be really beneficial if the federal government would exempt agricultural workers from the clawback for CERB.”

Anyone interested in working in Okanagan orchards can call Ron Forrest, the association’s manager of labour orientation and safety training, at 778-363-3620.

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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