HALIFAX – Anxiety is building for Nova Scotia farmers as they wait to find out how soon they’ll be able to call on large portions of their workforce.
On March 16, to slow the spread of COVID-19, the federal government banned most non-residents from entering the country.
Maritime farmers rely heavily on foreign workers to fill seasonal positions on their farms. While those workers will still be allowed into the country, uncertainty remains about exactly when and how they will be able to get in.
According to Victor Oulton, the president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture, about 1,500 temporary foreign workers come to work on Nova Scotia farms in a normal year.
But with flights grounded and travel precarious, this is not a normal year.
“We know the government has said that they can come through, but just with… all the other people trying to come home, and they’re shutting flights down, there’s just a lot of unknowns,” says Peter Eisses, a farmer and the president of Nova Scotia Fruit Growers Association.
These unknowns, Eisses says, can cause major problems for farmers as they prepare to plant and harvest their crops.
Annapolis Valley farmer Phil Keddy knows this all too well.
Keddy says it’s nearly impossible to plan his season and work schedule right now because he doesn’t know when his workers will show up.
“We were supposed to have guys coming in this week, so now we’re kind of being help up,” he says, adding that he doesn’t know if they’ll be here next week, in two weeks, or a month.
“Every day that your crop is not in the ground when it’s supposed to be you’re losing yield and just backing up the crop that much further,” he explains.
For other farmers, the uncertainty can be even more costly.
“There are some farmers that are contemplating whether they should even put a crop in the ground because they don’t know if they’re going to have any help to process it or plant it and look after it all summer,” Oulton says.
Foreign Workers Critical For N.S. Farms To Compete
Keddy says temporary seasonal workers are integral to farm operations in Nova Scotia because they provide consistency and expertise that lets farmers compete with larger operations in the United States.
Many of the workers he brings in return year after year, he says. Some have been coming for as long as 18 years and are “completely trained on every job.”
“Every guy has been here long enough that they know the jobs inside and out,” he says. This means he can focus on running his farm better, rather than training new seasonal workers every year.
Keddy explains that most Nova Scotia farms run on very low margins and make their profits by having efficiently trained workers that can harvest and pack product quickly.
With consistent, effective farm labour he can predict well in advance what his harvest will look like, allowing him to fill orders now for products he won’t ship until the end of the year. Already, he says, he has customers in Florida placing orders for October.
If he has to bring in new staff while he waits for his highly trained temporary foreign workers to arrive he loses all that efficiency.
“Labour is a huge factor, and when you start drastically increasing the cost of labour because the untrained people are packing at half the speed your trained people are then it completely puts you at a disadvantage in the marketplace,” he says.
Farmers Can’t Take Another Bad Year
Meanwhile, Eisses worries that if temporary workers have trouble getting into the country Nova Scotia agriculture could face another bleak season.
That would be devastating for farmers who’ve already been through two of the worst seasons in recent memory.
“We’ve had two bad years in a row. The frost in ’18 and then we had the hurricane and hail event in ’19. Those things you can handle once in a while. But two right after each other is very difficult and I know that there are some people who are really struggling,” he says.
But even beyond stranding temporary workers, Eisses says COVID-19 has brought tremendous uncertainty to Nova Scotia farmers. No one knows what’s going to happen next and that makes running a business downright scary.
“I find it a battle sometimes to deal with the real fear issue of it. Trying to push that down and say no to the fear because of what’s being presented in the media, and because of my own thoughts and how that affects me personally,” he says.
“[COVID-19] is another thing for guys to think about. It’s hard to talk about these things. It’s been very challenging. It’s just another thing to think about during this time.”
COVID Brings ‘So Many Unknowns’
Even though anxiety among the province’s farmers is very real, everything isn’t necessarily doom and gloom for the industry.
What happens this season, Eisses says, will depend a lot on how COVID-19 evolves and how governments react to it.
“If this drags on for another month, month and a half, and there’s other impacts….this could really drastically impact our year,” Eisses says.
Keddy predicts things will probably get set back a couple of weeks, which isn’t great but also isn’t the end of the world.
“If we’re set back a couple of weeks we’ll patch through and we’ll find some help or we’ll get by,” he says. “But if there are no seasonal workers until the summertime… then it is very dire at that point.”
“It could be disastrous, or it could be nothing at all. I have no idea,” Eisses agrees. “This thing has felt like that all along. There’s so many unknowns.”