An open letter to the people of Elgin, Middlesex and London: Keeping our workers safe

An open letter to the people of Elgin, Middlesex and London,

My name is Kevin Howe. Some of you may remember seeing me in the media this spring when I talked about how critical it was for Canada to allow foreign seasonal farm workers into the country to help us grow food this year.

Our family farms near Aylmer, where we grow strawberries, watermelon, pumpkins, sweet corn and squash. Most of our produce is sold to grocery stores and ends up on the dinner tables of people across Ontario.

We’re serious about providing a safe, healthy work environment for our workers, so we’ve made a lot of changes on our farm this year to adjust to the new realities of COVID-19.

A representative from the Ontario Ministry of Labour came to our farm to explain what we needed to do and to review our work plan. It was incredibly helpful - and it was nice to hear that what we are doing is above and beyond the official recommendations.

All of our international workers complete a mandatory two-week quarantine when they arrive in Canada, and even afterwards, we get all of their groceries and trips to town are limited. Workers who live together also work together and do so separately from other employees, and everyone goes through a daily screening to ensure they’re healthy before starting work.

As employers through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) – which is not like the Temporary Foreign Worker Program that is also open to many Canadian non-farm businesses – we follow very strict rules to protect farm workers from unfair living or working conditions. Random government integrity audits confirm that workers are paid and treated fairly, and they have a safe avenue through their country’s liaison to bring forward any concerns without fear of repercussion.

SAWP has been part of Canada’s fruit and vegetable industry for more than 50 years and provides jobs, income and skills training for workers from countries where the economy isn’t as strong as it is here. The program is constantly evolving and I’m incredibly proud to be able to provide employment to Canadians and workers from St. Vincent, Trinidad and Jamaica, and to work alongside them every year.

Because of the pandemic, we had 66% fewer workers this year and even with a 50% increase in the rate we pay per harvested quart of berries to attract more pickers, we simply couldn’t harvest all our fruit this year. About 200,000 pounds of strawberries were wasted and because strawberries are perennials that grow every year, we couldn’t just put fewer plants in the ground to adjust production.

At the same time, our wholesale retail contracts were in place long before the pandemic began, so the price we were paid for our berries didn’t reflect any of our unexpected additional costs or all the extra management and planning that comes with producing food and keeping workers safe in the midst of a pandemic.

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

Growers can all help reduce community spread by limiting movement of local temporary workers from one farm to another and making sure local and international employees work apart from each other. Getting workers tested is important, as is making sure they know they have job and income protection if they have to go into isolation. And our industry organization is working with all levels of government to provide COVID-19 health and safety training and protocols for growers.

Food security has never been more important and I’m proud of the role international employees and my farm play in putting food on Canadian tables. We appreciate all of you who buy local food at the grocery store, at farmers’ markets or from farmers directly – and we will continue to need your support as the pandemic continues.

Kevin Howe, fifth generation fruit and vegetable farmer Aylmer

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