18 May 2020 - Staffing with COVID-19

Kent Coates | May 21, 2020, 8:18 a.m.

The problem seems simple:  The agriculture and fishing industry are suffering from a massive shortage of trained labourers while there are thousands of people in New Brunswick unemployed and relying on government benefits.  Shouldn’t we be able to employ these people?  Why have these industries had to resort to off shore labour in order to produce products in the first place?  It doesn’t take long to recognize a few complexities.   Here is a look at Nature’s Route Farm and some of our challenges:

I grew vegetables for years with local staff.  In fact, I had excellent people who helped grow Nature’s Route Farm larger and larger.  The work was hard, but it was diverse and the farm had staff who were dedicated to the ideal of growing the best possible vegetables for our community.  Even in challenging times we managed to find and inspire young and old local staff.  As the farm grew, our need for labour also grew.  We no longer wasted labour hours working on projects that were doomed to fail; we focused on our successes and much of the labour work became less diverse.  Our carrot fields got larger and while we improved our tractor mechanical weed control, we still have to hand weed all the carrots, at least once every summer.  While we grew more and more food and fed more and more people, we lost the appeal of a small startup organic farm and became very much a production farm focused on deadlines and always more storage crops.  We maintained our strong ideals of environmental stewardship and the best quality food; but, we stopped getting applications from new farmers wanting to learn how to operate a small farm or wanting to be involved with something “grass root”.  These grass root workers with strong ideals are highly motivated and are very workers that early growth at Nature’s Route Farm was based.  The farm adapted new systems and gained efficiencies with better equipment and innovative ideas.  Our greater purpose, to provide healthy great tasting food to our community persisted and we were able to attract a limited number of local staff who stayed on. Over time, the reality of producing organic mixed vegetables in New Brunswick always sank in.  This often came in August or September after a long couple months of hard work wore down the idealism of organic farming.  We all worked so hard and the margins are so tight.  Our farm falls about exactly in the middle.  We are too small and diverse to automate more and more systems with GPS guided tractors, specialized electronic weeding toolbars or 6 row potato harvesters and too big to rely on a couple of trained labourers to fulfill our weeding and harvesting needs.  In the meantime, we are competing directly with food from abroad with access to bigger technology or regions of the world without fair labour laws or fair treatment of workers. 

By the fall, more often than not we have been left with too few staff to harvest our vegetables.  This increased the pressure on the staff who remained and while management stress levels skyrocketed.  In these challenging times so many questions elude answers.  What toll is too much to grow organic vegetables? Is it OK to sell carrots at a competitive price if my workers are too exhausted during the season to be good parents or partners?  Why do I have to work so much harder than any of my staff while always taking home less pay at the end of the year?  Is it even ethical to grow organic vegetables in a society that expects to work less and earn more than any of us can?  If so few of us have the interest, technical know-how, physical capacity and mental stamina to grow food why do so many people think so little of farmers?  How many more derogatory comments about farmers do I have to ignore in order to stay on top of my game?  The list is long: “What is the world coming to when the farmer knows more about software than I do?”  “… people are so ignorant, like farmers…”    and what about the unsaid dialogue which brings us right back to the original question.  If so many people are out of work, and so many labour jobs are required to keep our economy going and to produce food, why is it so easy for New Brunswickers to think we can just fill these positions with the welfare and unemployed?  Even then there seems to be a sentiment that only “these kinds of people” should have to do “that kind of work”.  What kind of people?  What kind of work? 

So many of us seem to think that somebody else should be able to fulfill these labour positions, but, many people would feel it demeaning for them.   Others would start work dreaming of how fulfilling it is to work on an organic farm, only to realize after a couple of months that the wages are low, the work hard and the pace unrelenting. 

I persisted for 10 years under these conditions.  I was at my wit’s end.  What else would I do?  I always enjoyed coaching.  I could revert to my athletic background and mentor endurance athletes or go back to my engineering roots…  Having invested so much of my life and energy in farming I decided to try Seasonal Agriculture Workers Program and hired three Mexican men for the 2018 growing season.  Jesus, Antonio and Leopoldo changed my life and my perspective.  For the first time I had professional labour staff working on my farm.  These men were proud of their work, needed minimal supervision, and were on time every single day, rain or shine, hot or cold.  They worked as hard from the first day they arrived until the day they went home to their families months later.  These men gave me hope about our future; we relied on each other.  They worked hard, were trusted, treated with respect and provided a safe place to live and work while I gained reliable staff who enabled me to make commitments to customers and achieve a better life:work balance.  They were so appreciative of the work, so respectful and so gracious.  The pay which seems so little to local staff goes far in Mexico where being paid Canadian wages enables them to put their children through school and university, build better houses, buy a washing machine for their family or bicycles for their children.  As I cried when I dropped Antonio and Leopoldo off at the airport after that first season, I did not know that Antonio would die in Mexico a couple of months later.  I was devastated.  This 28 year old man worked so hard, never complained and sacrificed so much time away from his family to provide them with hope for a better future was not able to enjoy the rewards of his efforts.  In 2019 only Leopoldo returned to work at Nature’s Route Farm and we had two new workers from Mexico.  Again, these men gave me hope that farming in New Brunswick was possible and that the wages these men sent to Mexico went to the most deserving families.  In January of 2020 Jesus returned to our farm to work.  Despite not speaking the same language, coming from different cultures and different backgrounds our bond has strengthened and I feel both grateful and indebted to these people who give so much to Canadians in exchange for hope and better opportunities for their families.

I love my work.  I am strong, robust and resilient.  There have been challenges, but, I always want to grow more of the best possible food for people.  My clients are so grateful, and while I do not have much money to spare at the end of the year, I do not want for much.  I have my family and my work.  This is my life.

So, as we all struggle with COVID-19 and businesses foreclose, workers are laid off and our values are challenged, I hope that our community will hold us all up.  I hope that we can think globally while living in our isolated bubbles.  We are lucky in New Brunswick.  We have health professionals who dedicate their lives and put their families at risk for us.  In these challenging times low wage earners have become our front line workers at grocery stores and other essential services.  This is not the time to forsake our workers who come from away.  The risk of them carrying COVID-19 into our midst exists; but we have the health care capacity to deal with these healthy strong workers and their recovery.  They rely on these jobs as much as our society relies on their extraordinary work. These workers will have to work somewhere else in 2020, and judging from how New Brunswick is faring to date, they will be at higher risk almost anywhere on earth.