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Making it work — or not

Direct Farm Manitoba speaker says farm owners need to look further afield — 
to provincial job centres and settlement agencies — to find the staffers they need

The labour shortage in agriculture affects all types of farms and enterprises with short-season, high-labour needs definitely feel the pinch of it.

Pam and John Griffin need to hire people every summer to take off their strawberry harvest on their five-acre Glenboro-area Good Earth Garden and Berries farm.

But not many want the job.

“I’m always starting from scratch,” said Pam Griffin, a participant at the Direct Farm Manitoba conference earlier this month.

It’s a challenge faced every season when they start to look around locally, she said

“There’s just not a lot of options. We don’t have the kind of work that people want.”

But an international program offering tourists unpaid work in exchange for an opportunity to temporarily live on a Canadian farm has helped.

This will be the fifth year they’ll host about half a dozen tourists they’ve linked up with through the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, commonly called the WOOFer program.

Most come from Europe and often have little or no experience with any sort of agricultural setting, said Griffin.

“They may have never picked up a hoe,” she said. But they are enthusiastic and for the short time frame they’re available they’re a good match to their farm’s labour needs. They work about five hours a day and receive room and board in exchange. The same workplace and safety and health employment standards apply to these workers as anyone else working for them.

“Some stay for a week, some a little bit longer,” said Griffin. “I do rely on them.”

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It’s not ideal, but it’s one of the creative ways farmers like the Griffins deal with a labour shortage that would otherwise put a big crimp in running their farm.

It’s a predicament shared across farms of all types in Canada. Canada-wide there are about 60,000 positions in agriculture going unfilled, a labour gap only expected to worsen in the next decade, according to research done by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council. The labour shortages is particularly acute for horticulture industries.

But it impacts all types of farms, and can mean anything from harvests not optimized to being unable to do value-added production, said speakers at the Direct Farm Marketing conference here earlier this month.

“It’s no secret that finding people and finding good people is extremely difficult,” said Stephanie Cruickshanks Manitoba Agriculture industry development specialist in labour and immigration.

“From what I hear over and over again is it tends to be the most difficult portion of running your farm business.”

“I often get phone calls from farmers because they haven’t been able to find people. No one wants to work for them.”

It’s a very difficult situation but Cruickshanks thinks there may be places farmers aren’t looking either.

These include the Manitoba job centres and settlement agencies working with new Canadians.

The former post jobs and have employment counsellors who help match those looking for jobs with work available.

“I don’t believe agriculture is utilizing those employment centres to their fullest capacity,” she said. She’s also noted that staff in these centres tend to have an outdated view of agriculture.

“This is one area where I think as an ag industry as a whole we can do a better job identifying that this industry has jobs in many areas of the province.”

Likewise, settlement agencies such as those found in Brandon and Winkler can also be places farmers may find people they need. Staff with these agencies tend not to be familiar with agriculture either, she noted. But there’s a good chance many of the clients of these agencies have farm backgrounds from their countries of origin, and these potential hires are also permanent residents or already Canadian citizens so hiring them won’t involve the complexities of hiring immigrants, she added.

“It’s a real opportunity,” she said. “We need to strategically better align ourselves to network with newcomers in the province.”

Manitoba Start, a provincial program connecting those who have recently immigrated to Manitoba is another place to find people and so are schools, colleges and universities.

All of this takes time and may not yield people right away but can raise awareness of your business and the employment opportunities it offers, she said.

It’s all about relationship building and going beyond the traditional places we’ve been looking for workers, she said.

“I have observed we need to see a bit of a culture shift within our employers,” she said, adding that rural depopulation, pressure from other industries and declining experience of farm life in the general public are all draining the farm labour pool dry.

“Traditionally employers have worked with neighbours, retired farmers, their neighbours’ kids,” she said.

“It’s not as easy as it used to be.”

Labour shortage was a point of discussion at the Keystone Agricultural Producers annual meeting in January too, where delegates supported a resolution asking their organization to pursue a formal proposal to Apprenticeship Manitoba for establishing ‘agricultural craft’ as a designated trade offered at an accredited post-secondary institution.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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