Labour Pains

Where does Canada’s farm labour shortage stand? Are there solutions coming?

By Colleen Halpenny

As Canadian farms continue to feel the pinch of a shrinking labour force, our industry actively searches for solutions.

“Producers across the country are facing tough realities,” says Gary Stordy, director of government and corporate affairs for the Canadian Pork Council. “The supply chain has been hit at all levels.”

Closing a processing plant because it can’t retain enough staff has far-reaching effects, for example.

“From the farm production level, producers must now work to haul farther, transport costs rise, access to locally-produced product decreases, and overall, producers contemplate whether or not they can continue on in the industry,” he says.

Scot Ryckman and his wife Cheryl are owner-operators of Ryckman Farms, a quail breeding and processing facility in Muirkirk, Ont. “We used to process 13,500 birds per day,” he says. “Due to a lack of employees, we’re down to just 9,000 birds.

“I’m actively turning away new business because, although we have the birds in inventory, we can’t deliver them.”

Technician Adjusting Automated Feeding System
    Farm & Food Care SK photo

Ryckman isn’t alone. Even back in 2017, Statistics Canada noted that 47 per cent of agriculture producers couldn’t find enough workers to fill positions along the production line. The Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) notes that labour shortages during the pandemic have resulted in 2.9 billion in lost sales, equivalent to approximately 4.2 per cent of the sector’s total.

Farm labourers are the rarest to find, creating plenty of stress at the farm production level. Proper training and vetting of candidates are a time-consuming task; coupled with the financial investment of single or multiple full-time employees, producers are crunched to find those who are ready to be long-term investments.

Farm Worker standing on farm truck
    Farm & Food Care SK photo

“Filling those on-farm positions with additional employee support is a tough balancing act for many producers,” Stordy notes. “There are some funding programs available to assist with employee retention and bridge the lifestyle gap of education, benefits and training. Sustainability in all aspects of the job is critical.” This includes good employee camaraderie, he adds.

Access to foreign workers continues to be a hot-button topic, as travel restrictions and isolation protocols are ever-changing, and most cumbersome is the lengthy application process. Producers are left wanting, with no real quick solution in sight.

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) found that in 2017, 34 per cent of agriculture producers who offered employment opportunities didn’t receive a single application from a Canadian resident. Those in the greenhouse, nursery and floriculture sectors are the largest employers of foreign labour, stemming from the lack of mechanical options to harvest.

“I’ve taken advantage of career websites to widen my reach of potential applicants,” notes Ryckman. “In the last month, I’ve received 90 resumes. Not even one was from someone living in Canada. They’re coming from South America and Europe, with a keen interest in moving here for dependable work. Previously, the cost of foreign workers had been a deterrent to our business, but we’ve reached the point where we need to engage with this market if we’re going to remain in business.”

There’s a lot to be desired for filling these positions with foreign workers. However, with an eight-month wait period after paperwork is submitted, the search to find a suitable candidate, process them and their arrival in Canada, Stordy says many producers are deterred from applying.

“They need extra hands next month, but how can they accurately predict their needs eight-plus months down the road to balance the financial investment?” Stordy asks. “Many producers are stalled before they even truly get started in the process.”

The temporary work period grants two years to foreign workers, allowing for a set structure once in the country. A long-term goal, Stordy highlights, is that a permanent residence could be established to help producers mitigate the initial lengthy process of gaining access to these skilled workers.

Unfortunately, the horizon looks to be challenging still. The CAHRC estimates that by 2025, there will be 200,000 fewer young employees entering the agriculture sector, combined with a retirement rate of one in four employees of those comprising the current workforce.

Pandemic lifestyles have drastically changed the face of the workforce. Michael Harris, executive director of KEYS Job Centre in Kingston Ont., has seen the shift come swiftly. “Those searching for jobs are much more cautious,” he says. “Prospective employees are taking the time to investigate the long-term scope of the opportunity; our days have changed from job searching to career exploration.”

“Due to widespread downsizing, those on the career search are first taking the time to elevate their current skillset, explore new training, and focus on what they want to fill their days with. Due to the uncertainty with access to (things like) childcare, structured school days, or what basic benefits are included, the leap into a new job isn’t something they’re taking lightly,” Harris states.

“Help wanted signs are posted up and down the road. But there are no takers,” Ryckman says.

A call to action has been made loudly by Cam Dahl, general manager of Manitoba Pork, for those at all levels of government to increase the awareness of the vast opportunities within the agriculture sector. Producers through all stages and sectors of the supply chain need more educational prep courses which can build the bases for entry-level positions to be filled by those with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the workplace.

While the expansion of many farms has been curbed due to the limited entrance of labourers, producers instead have turned to increased innovation and efficiencies in their operations. To accommodate the limited hands available, finding new ways to achieve high standards of production is more crucial than ever.

Farmer Setting Up Automatic Milking System
    Farm & Food Care SK photo

Of Canadian dairy farms on milk recording, in 2020 it was reported 15.77 per cent of producers utilized Automatic Milking Systems (AMS) as indicated by Lactanet and the Canadian Dairy Information Centre. Investing in this automation, producers can see positive returns beyond the bulk tank. It offers the ability to shift hours dedicated to milking to other tasks, as well as decreasing the potential need for year-round, full-time employees.

Hog producers have taken note of the widespread acceptance and returns from AMS dairy herds. Stordy mentions that Ontario Pork has undertaken a new research station aimed at innovating barn structure, equipment, ventilation, increased working conditions and atmosphere. “They see the need to put forth the effort to change the narrative on hog farming to attract both future producers and employees,” he says.

Wondering how to retain those currently in your employ? Harris suggests, “Look at flexible work schedules, wages, benefits, and focus on the family and work-life balance. It’s a very difficult line to walk, but actively engaging with your employees to gauge contentment levels is an investment worthwhile.”

Looking outside the norm of traditional applicants can also lead to increased engagement. Harris advocates for the consideration of those persons with disabilities, “given the right support and training, they can successfully enter the workforce and thrive. We assist employers to put policies and practices in place to assist in hiring, training and retaining those populations which traditionally aren’t hired from.”

And sometimes it all comes down to dollars and cents. With minimum wages increasing across the country since the beginning of the pandemic, some chain businesses have taken to offering monetized bonuses for new employees to fill the gaps in their operations.

“When one farm finds a reliable employee, we’ve seen where another farmer will offer a higher wage because they need those hands working for them. We’re basically pricing ourselves out, trying to keep production running smoothly,” indicates Ryckman.

The CFA recommends the development of a National Agri-Food Labour and Automation Strategy. This project would focus on investing to improve the awareness of careers in the agriculture sectors, and streamline the Temporary Foreign Worker Program while also improving immigration options for workers to become permanent Canadian residents.

It also plans to address strategic investments to support the adoption of labour-saving technologies and automation; to create a dedicated Canadian agriculture and agri-food workforce program to provide consistent and efficient access to international workers; and offer human resource management training and certification demonstrating quality practices for training, retention, recruitment and staff management.

Full sector-wide solutions may still be a long way from becoming realized and Canadian producers like Ryckman continue to meet the challenges head-on while delivering top-quality products. “The days get a lot longer, but the jobs get done,” he says. BF

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