Crop culled due to worker shortage

·3 min read

Asparagus grower John Jaques isn’t sure why, but changes to the federal government’s migrant worker program have left him six men short this season.

It’s a situation the Thamesville area farmer found himself unable to cope with, so he’s started mowing down 20 acres of his 60-acre crop.

He’s considering converting the 20-acre parcel to corn and soybeans.

“It’s sad,” the owner of Sunshine Farms said in a recent interview with The Chatham Voice. “It’s expensive and very labour intensive to get an asparagus crop into production.

“Growing soybeans and corn makes it a whole lot easier.”

At age 70, the veteran farmer – once Ontario’s largest asparagus producer – said the situation has knocked the fight out of him and he’s scaling back.

“We can only do so much as a family,” Jaques added.

For some 40 years, Jaques has participated in the Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker program, mainly drawing workers from Mexico.

At Jaques’ request, many of the same workers have been returning for years and have become like family.

But the vegetable grower said 2022 is different.

He put in his orders for workers – who fly in each week on a staggered schedule – to begin the asparagus harvest that normally peaks the first two weeks of May.

In the first week when 12 workers were scheduled to arrive, only 10 made it, Jaques said. On week two, when 13 were set to arrive, there were only nine; and on the final week when five were supposed to come, only four made it.

Consequently, Jaques said, that even though the asparagus crop was late, the understaffed crew at Sunshine Farms couldn’t keep up.

“When we have a full crew, we work lots of hours,” he explained. “From daylight until dark. But being six workers short, we were unable to harvest and pack all of the crop.”

Besides selling asparagus at the farm gate, Sunshine Farms also sells an array of canned and pickled products to grocery stores across the province.

Until now, Jaques said the migrant worker program has worked well for him.

He blames changes made at the federal level for the shortages.

In the past, Jaques said extra workers would normally wait at airports on standby, ready to take the place of workers who couldn’t make it.

That’s no longer happening, Jaques said, noting that process had worked well in the past.

“They’re no longer doing that,” Jaques said.

He said he’s also heard there are COVID-19 related government slowdowns in Mexico, and worker applications were not being processed on time.

Jaques has heard the Canadian migrant worker shortage is due to COVID-19 but he’s not buying it.

As for hiring workers closer to home, Jaques said he doesn’t even bother because it’s so hard to find good workers.

“Many people are expecting a cheque for nothing,” he added. “Canada, in my opinion, has turned into a welfare state.”

Jaques said he’s received plenty of comments on social media encouraging him to donate the asparagus crop.

Many people have also asked him to let people come and pick their own, but Jaques can’t allow that due to liability issues.

“Even if it (the asparagus) was donated, we’d still have to pick it,” he explained.

Farm labour shortages in Chatham-Kent are widespread. As of Friday, there were 61 positions relating to farm labour on the chathamkentjob.com employment website.

Calls to Chatham-Kent–Leamington MP Dave Epp, who represents agriculture in the Conservative shadow cabinet, were not answered as of press time.

Pam Wright, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chatham Voice

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