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Record-low unemployment has growers in British Columbia, Canada, relying increasingly on Mexican workers to toil in their berry fields and orchards.

Dave Sandher of Kelowna says that if it weren’t for foreign workers, much of his 90 acres of apples and 20 acres of cherries simply wouldn’t be harvested.

"Last year, I had 12 Mexican workers; this year, I’ll have 20," he said. "Nobody likes to work [on farms] here in Canada. There are too many jobs."

Mexican workers are brought to Canada under the auspices of the B.C. Seasonal Agriculture Worker Program, which is now in its fourth season of operation.

Since its introduction in May 2004, the Seasonal Agriculture Worker Program has seen such rapid expansion that a pilot project called the Western Agriculture Labour Initiative was recently formed to oversee and coordinate the program.

From a humble beginning of nine farms employing 47 workers in 2004, the program expanded to 130 farms using 1,253 workers in 2006, said Mike Wallis, who is in charge of the pilot program. This year, an estimated 1,800 to 2,000 Mexican workers will be brought to British Columbia, with about a third working in Okanagan orchards and the others helping berry growers in the Fraser Valley, as well as greenhouse, vegetable, and nursery growers.

Accommodation

The Seasonal Agriculture Worker Program requires employers to pay return air transportation for their workers and Can.$9.25 (U.S.$8.36) per hour, plus provide approved accommodation, medical benefits, and at least 240 hours of work.

"You have to advertise for workers and demonstrate to Service Canada a need for foreign workers," Wallis said.

Municipality and regional district bylaws governing housing, which vary throughout the province, often create hurdles for farmers, and the province has appointed a representative, Dave Coney, to look into making the bylaws more consistent.

Sandher said that despite the costs and paperwork associated with the seasonal worker program, he is pleased with the results.

"The Mexicans are very good workers," he said. "They don’t smoke, and they don’t drink while they’re in Canada," and they learn the required skills quickly.

The language barrier is a problem, since most of them speak no English, but Sandher said he has learned a little Spanish, and a member of his household can interpret, so language "is a small issue."

"The biggest problem with language is at pruning time, because it’s harder to explain than harvesting," he said.

Sandher has also purchased four self-propelled platforms, at a cost of Can.$7,000 each (U.S.$6,325), that he says save him about 40 percent in labor costs for pruning and 20 percent for thinning. He also uses them in a limited capacity for harvesting.

Manual pickers

While mechanical harvesters are an alternative for berry and some grape growers, cherry and apple growers still rely on manual pickers.

Glen Lucas, manager of the British Columbia Fruit Growers’ Association, estimates that 1,200 workers will be required to harvest the cherry crop, a similar number to sort and pack the crop, and 1,700 more to harvest the apple crop this year.

The bulk of the cherry pickers are French Canadians who come to the Okanagan Valley each summer from the province of Quebec.

"It’s estimated that about 800 to 1,000 workers come to the valley from Quebec," said Mireille Beck, project manager for the Okanagan French Employment Services Centre in Kelowna.

She said 80 percent of those workers are college and university students. They come for the work, but also want to travel, experience the lifestyle, and learn English, she noted.

However, the proliferation of jobs in the construction and hospitality industries in British Columbia, often paying more than farm work, is providing competition for those workers.

A labor committee recently formed by the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association is attempting to counter that trend by hiring two bilingual students who will provide orientation and information for people who come to the valley looking for agricultural work, Lucas said.

The association is also launching a Web site—expected to be operational by July 1—to help match employees with employers.

"The acute labor shortage is being partially offset by the foreign worker program, but we need to find new ways of attracting, training, and retaining a domestic work force," said association President Joe Sardinha.

Labor sharing

There are plans to develop workshops for new employees and to publish a guide for growers on employee management and employment standards. The guide will be in English and Punjabi, since about half of the growers are Indo-Canadians.

The labor committee also discussed labor sharing on small farms, improving worker conditions, and ways to attract more local workers and retain them from season to season.

Even grape growers are now feeling a labor crunch, said Gary Dean, a director of the British Columbia Grapegrowers Association and a partner in Vinifera Custom Viticulture, Ltd., a Naramata, British Columbia, company that provides workers for vineyards.

"The number of requests to my company for labor assistance this year alone has increased 40 percent," Dean said.

He said the large vineyards of the South Okanagan use mechanical harvesters extensively, but the hilly terrain in the northern Okanagan regions negates that option.

A large contingent of workers from Quebec assists with the harvest, he said, and a few come from Europe.

He said grape growers are considering the Seasonal Agriculture Worker Program, but a shortage of housing for the workers is "the one hiccup."

"The B.C. Grapegrowers Association is looking for government assistance and direction on how we can accommodate those workers," he said.

Management

Greg Norton, who operates a 45-acre cherry orchard in Oliver, said he sees it as more of a management problem than a work-force problem.

He said his staff of 55, including pickers, sorters, and packers at his orchard’s on-site packing house, are mostly repeat workers from Quebec. "About half are university students, and the other half are what I call professional pickers who like to travel," he said.

He said he pays well, offers "excellent camping facilities" and a good working environment, and treats them with respect.

"We do not feel there is a shortage of workers; we feel there is a shortage of good managers. Maybe, out of this labor shortage will come an appreciation for labor. They’re absolutely critical to our operation. Without them, we’re dead."