When international travel was banned in March of this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many Niagara fruit farmers were in shock.
John and Jocelyn Thwaites and their sons, who attend Niagara United Mennonite Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., were among those farmers. Much of the work on their fruit farm is done by off-shore workers from Jamaica. They were supposed to arrive in late March to start the first of the orchard work and also work with the asparagus crop. The orchard work includes pruning the peach, pear and nectarine trees, suckering the grape plants, budding trees, and later thinning the ripening fruit and harvesting.
This work is time sensitive; there is not a long window for the work to be done, says John, adding, “These workers are skilled labourers with years of experience. They can’t be replaced.”
“Trees and vines need to be pruned every year or they will quickly deteriorate,” he says. “One year of neglect will affect the crop potential for a number of years.”
Unlike vegetables grown in greenhouses or fields, if there are no workers, the seeds don’t get planted and there is no harvest.
Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services, a non-profit, federally incorporated organization that facilitates and coordinates the processing of foreign seasonal agricultural workers, discussed the situation with the Ministry of Labour and negotiated an exemption for foreign agricultural workers on the international travel ban.
When the 52 workers arrived at the Thwaites’ farm, they were quarantined for two weeks. The houses where the workers live were stocked with all necessary provisions before their arrival. The men were not allowed to work or leave the property, or to have any contact with other people except those living in the same house, but they were paid for these two weeks.
The fruit harvested at the Thwaites farm—and there will be fruit this year—is sold by Vineland Growers to large national chains like Loblaws, Metro, Costco, Sobeys and Walmart.
With the wages they earn in the Niagara Region, they are able to supply their families with much more money they than they would earn in Jamaica. As well, they are also able to ship home food supplies, clothes, computers, and bigger items such as welders and water pumps.
Most of the same off-shore workers return every year and are well-known in the community. A 50th-anniversary celebration was held for the farm work program in Niagara Region in 2016.
In 1966, 273 migrant workers came to Canada. Today, there are 17,000 men and women, with 7,000 of them living and working in Niagara.
Jane Andres of Southridge Community Church, a Mennonite Brethren-affiliated congregation, owns a local bed and breakfast. She has been instrumental in facilitating an annual Niagara Workers Welcome concert and the peach pickers’ picnic with the help of many local volunteers and church groups.
Other social activities include regular Sunday evening church services, table games such as dominoes, and field games such as cricket and soccer.
The Niagara Workers Welcome group also distributes welcome kits that include heavy-duty work gloves and thermal socks to close to 600 workers.
Because the workers’ mode of transportation is using bicycles, bike repairs and sales are organized by Bikes for Farmworkers. Health clinics are set up for their use by Quest Community Health, and they have Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) coverage.
Andres has made eight trips to Jamaica, visiting with individual migrant workers and their families. “I stay in their homes, visit their churches and schools, and learn about their culture first-hand,” she says, adding that she finds it a most rewarding cross-cultural experience.