by SUSAN MANN
The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council is jump-starting a conversation on how the agricultural industry can close the gap on a shortage of 59,000 farm workers across the country.
Ontario vegetable and grain farmer Mark Wales, who is also the council’s chair, says the shortage impacts farmers “because if you don’t have the people to help you grow, raise and harvest your crop, or care for livestock, then you either won’t grow it in the first place or you’ll get to harvest and not have enough people so you’ll have a lot of crop losses.”
Wales says the shortage of workers in the agricultural industry has doubled in the past 10 years and is projected to double again in the next 10 years. There are several reasons for the lack of farm workers, including an aging agricultural workforce, youth not seeing the value of an agricultural career and leaving rural areas, and immigrants typically not moving to rural areas.
Wales is in Winnipeg for the council’s Growing the AgriWorkforce Summit, which runs until March 16. The industry’s shortage of 59,000 workers was one of the key findings of the council’s Labour Market Information research released during a press conference at the summit on Tuesday.
The study, based on 2014 numbers, also found primary agriculture has the highest job vacancy rate of any industry at seven per cent. Furthermore, vacant jobs in farming cost producers $1.5 billion annually.
The study focused exclusively on primary agriculture, according to a March 15 council press release. However, labour shortages also impact Canadian food processors.
Wales notes the agricultural industry “has a huge opportunity to grow. But you can’t grow if you don’t have the necessary people with the necessary skill levels to do the work that needs to be done.”
As for how the worker shortage impacts Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s challenge to the provincial agricultural industry to create 120,000 new jobs by 2020, Wales says as the gap between the demand and supply of workers grows it will become harder “to grow our industry. The shame is the demand for what we grow and raise is constantly going up.”
The worker shortage problem is being compounded because the farmer/owners and the workers currently in the industry are getting older. “We’re going to see a huge increase in people who are working on farms who will be retiring in the next 10 years.”
Wales says part of the labour summit is dedicated to looking at the numbers along with the shortage situation and starting to talk to governments, the industry, stakeholders and others to develop solutions.
“This is just the beginning,” he says.
Debra Hauer, Labour Market Information project manager for the council, says the council is inviting agricultural industry representatives and others “to join us in a conversation about what are the next steps and where should we go. What should we do about this?”
Hauer says the search for solutions began at the summit and will continue “in the weeks and months to come. We want to hear from everybody and then have everybody be part of the solution, as well.”
Wales says mechanization somewhat helps alleviate the lack of people to work on farms but there are many crops that can’t use mechanical methods for growing or harvesting. Similarly, foreign workers coming in as part of government programs to provide international employees for various sectors also help to fill some of the worker demand.
“Over the last 10 years, part of that (worker) gap has been filled by the temporary foreign worker program,” Wales says.
To deal with the gap, a broad range of solutions is needed, such as encouraging young people, new immigrants, First Nations peoples and others to consider careers in agriculture. “There are lots of solutions and no single one of them is going to fill the gap,’ he notes.
The council is poised to unveil an online national agriculture jobs’ board. Farmers will be able to post their jobs on the board and job seekers can use the interactive features of the site to be guided to a particular job that fits their needs and skills, Wales explains.
The site will also skim other job boards across the country and list those jobs too so “it will be the most up-to-date national jobs board for jobs in agriculture.” BF