COVID created ‘nightmare’ season for Haldimand-Norfolk farmers

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This was a year to forget for farmers in Haldimand-Norfolk. But with the pandemic far from over and another labour shortage possible, 2021 could feel like déjà vu.

“This COVID is a real nightmare for farmers,” said Larry Davis, a director with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture representing Brant, Haldimand and Norfolk counties.

Davis said variable weather and delays in getting migrant workers into the country caused headaches for farmers across the industry.

“There were times when harvesting was difficult or even planting was difficult because they didn’t have enough help to plant their crops and get them to harvest,” he said.

The spring asparagus harvest was a harbinger of things to come. Davis said locals could not replace the work ethic and expertise of offshore workers who were barred from entering Canada or were sidelined by COVID-19, including a fatal outbreak at Scotlynn Group’s Vittoria farm.

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That meant fewer acres harvested, with some farmers sitting out the season altogether.

Farmers’ frustration continued as scorching summer temperatures baked strawberries in the fields, while an early frost wiped out much of the fall tobacco crop.

“Farmers are worried about their ability to stay in the same type of farming,” Davis said, explaining that some growers ripped out their labour-intensive fruit and vegetable crops in favour of lower-maintenance grain and oilseed crops like corn and soybeans.

Livestock farmers in Haldimand-Norfolk still have cows, hogs, chickens and turkeys stuck on their farms because of shutdowns or slowdowns at meat packing plants affected by COVID-19.

“So that backs up that animal in the production line, and of course the farmer is the one that pays for the extra cost of keeping that animal for the extra time,” Davis said.

In the spring, Ontario growers worried about significant food shortages and rising costs for consumers. Imported food helped “fill the void” on store shelves, Davis said, but food prices did rise, and the 2021 Food Price Report out of Dalhousie University predicts record hikes for meat, bread and vegetables next year.

That will put more pressure on farmers to produce while still picking up the pieces from 2020. Davis cited improperly pruned apple trees — which will not yield as much fruit the following season — as an example of how the effects of this year’s labour shortage “will carry over into 2021.”

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That the contentious three-person bunkhouse limit for quarantining migrant workers remains in place in Haldimand-Norfolk further complicates the workers’ return, Davis added.

“It’s still unknown whether we’re going to have workers coming in from Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica (in 2021),” he added. “Some of them haven’t even gone home yet.”

Several hundred Trinidadians remain in Canada in bureaucratic limbo, with some working in local greenhouses to prepare next year’s seedlings.

Next season will likely be another test of farm insurance policies and farmers’ resolve in an industry already known for high debt loads and thin profit margins. But Davis said farmers are used to operating on hope.

“A farmer will buy seed in 2019, plant in 2020, and may not get paid until 2021,” he said.

“Farmers trust that there will be a payback. It’s always a gamble with Mother Nature and the consumer. But the farmer is the eternal optimist. They’re going to come back again next year.”

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada

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