It’s time to look for farm labour with a fresh set of eyes


Photo credit: Via Flickr, Paul Xymon Garcia, 2010

Thanks to automation and good management (and perhaps necessity), some producers can farm vast tracts of land themselves with minimal help.

But not all farmers are so fortunate. Certain industries, fruit and vegetables for example, require an exceptional commitment to human resources – along with hard work that modern-era Canadians simply haven’t wanted to do.

Foreign workers have filled the gap, through temporary and seasonal worker programs. Number-wise, they’ve been a success and are an ingrained part of Canadian farming culture. Last year 39,700 foreign workers came to Canada through these programs, 2,000 more than the year before.

But is it sustainable? The feds are changing the rules for these programs, which will require more administration by farmers, such as higher fees and greater obligation to prove a Canadian can’t be found for the job.

Al Mussell, a researcher at the George Morris Centre in Guelph, thinks the writing’s on the wall. While foreign worker programs have eased the employment gap, he says the increasingly complex agri-food sector simply can’t rely in the long term on low-cost workers with minimal education levels.

Instead, he urges, let’s look inside our own border, with a fresh set of eyes.

As the Canadian workforce evolves, he believes a greater number and proportion of post-secondary educated workers will emerge.

That could advance the technology-driven agriculture sector.

“The industries that can shape their technology, workplace design, working conditions and compensation package to attract this growing portion of the workforce will be better positioned,” he says.

It’s a good time to give it a try. Agricultural college enrollment is healthy. Young people – all people, in fact — are taking more interest in where food is coming from. Farming has an allure that, with a concerted job-awareness campaign, just might attract workers like never before.

Of course, this new crop of employees might change their minds about agriculture once they get a taste of hard work.

But on the flip side, they might find what farmers have long said – that is, farming’s more than a job, it’s a lifestyle.

In any event, when it comes to human resources, change is in the air. The time to embrace it is now.


Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy


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