Travel restrictions set to bite into Canadian vegetable production

Each year, Canadian farms and orchards grow an abundance of fruit and vegetables for both local and export markets. From peaches and pears, to broccoli and asparagus, to processing tomatoes and cucumbers, Canada’s horticultural industry plays a vital role in producing local, fresh food for millions.

Many of these farms employ seasonal workers, temporary foreign workers, and international workers, all to perform the hands-on work required of fruit and vegetable growing. The advent of COVID-19 was a major challenge last year, as borders closed when many workers were still in transit to Canada. Now, nearly a year later, new restrictions and requirements are threatening horticulture production yet again.

For some farms, the added cost of chartered flights, a government-mandated hotel stay, and the uncertainty of even getting workers here may be too much risk to take on — already, some farms are pulling back their plans for 2021.

Acres are likely to be cut, but by how much depends largely on how long it takes to get clarity on the travel rules and regulations, and the additional costs to bring workers to Canada.

It also depends on the crop type says Mike Pasztor, who grows corn, soybeans, cereal rye, pickling cucumbers, and jalapeno peppers, in Norfolk County, Ontario. For perennial crops, such as orchards and asparagus, acreage shifts are difficult and will likely stay fairly constant; but for annual crops, including those started in a greenhouse or seeded in the field, high grain prices and a lack of labour could add up to a significant shift in vegetable acres.

Pasztor says that, in 2020, they grew only about a third of the pickling cucumbers they usually would and only a quarter of the peppers. While his farm doesn’t use the Temporary Foreign Worker or Seasonal Agriculture Worker programs, he does hire dual citizens who spend the Canadian winter in Mexico. As of right now, he’s still unsure when his employees will be back in Canada and at what cost. The uncertainty means these reduced numbers may stick for 2021, a decision he’ll have to make soon, as the peppers are started in the greenhouse in mid-March.

There’s a real risk of farms moving away from vegetable production on a large scale in 2021, although right now, no one is brave enough to put a number on the estimated pull-back in production. As we saw in 2020, the “Freedom Gardens” that many thought were a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence may prove popular yet again.

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