An open letter to the people of Durham Region: Keeping our workers safe.

An open letter to the people of Durham Region

Keeping our workers safe.

I’m Charles Stevens of Wilmot Orchards in Newcastle, where we grow apples and blueberries. This is the 37th year that we are welcoming guests to our farm to pick their own blueberries.

Blueberry season will be here shortly, and like so many things in our daily lives now, things will be different this year for all of you who come to our farm to pick blueberries. They’re also different for our family and for all of our workers, both local and those who join us for the season from other countries.

That’s because above all, we want our workers and our customers to be safe.

We’ve moved to an online booking system so guests can reserve their picking slot. They can also select their preferred container size and pre-pay online to minimize contact with our staff. And our on-farm café is being replaced with online purchasing and curbside pickup this year - all to reduce contact, keep physical distance and help keep people safe.

The last of our international workers will be arriving shortly, which will finally bring our workforce up to its usual numbers. Many of our international workers have been coming to our farm for years, and with their home countries heavily dependent on a tourism sector suffering heavily as a result of the pandemic, they tell us that they’re glad to have the opportunity to be here this season to support their families and their communities.

Our farm’s commitment to worker safety is our top priority. Our international workers all complete a two-week quarantine before they start working and we keep them completely separate from our local employees - from work areas and housing to where they take their breaks - so they don’t run the risk of contracting the virus here.

We bring in all their groceries and provide online banking and high-speed internet so they don’t have to leave the farm. We also had a mobile testing unit come to our farm so everyone of our staff and management, myself included, could be tested for COVID-19. Thankfully, everyone is healthy and we continue to be extremely cautious to make sure it stays that way.

As we learn more about recent outbreaks on Ontario farms, our industry is working to address problems quickly and prevent them from happening elsewhere. For example, we now know that some recent outbreaks were associated with the use of unregulated local recruitment agencies whose contract workers moved from farm to farm.

We all can play our part in reducing community spread by limiting movement of local temporary workers from one farm to another and keeping local and international workers separate from each other. It’s also really important to help get workers tested and make sure they know their rights for job and income protection if they have to go into isolation. And our industry organization, the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, is working with all levels of government to provide COVID-19 health and safety training guidelines for growers.

Personally, I appreciate the support from both the federal and provincial governments throughout this crisis. Without it, we wouldn’t have homegrown fruits and vegetables in Ontario and in Canada this year, and as growers, we’ll continue to do our best to adapt to the ongoing challenges we’re facing.

I strongly believe a business is only as good as its people, and I’m very proud of the people in ours and what they’re doing to put food on our tables.

Charles Stevens, apple and blueberry grower, Newcastle

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