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Planting underway in the Holland Marsh despite COVID-19 challenges
TORONTO -- Vegetable farmers in the Holland Marsh, north of Toronto, are racing to plant crops while dealing with a labour shortage due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are making the best of a bad situation,” said Paul Luckshaw, the general manager at Hillside Gardens Ltd., which grows vegetables across 2,000 acres.
The farm relies heavily on highly skilled and trained migrant workers from Mexico. So far, only 20 of 65 migrant workers have arrived.
The outstanding 45 workers are still in Mexico waiting for work visas to be processed while government and consulate offices there have been closed due to the pandemic.
With a narrow window to start planting, Hillside hired temporary workers from employment agencies to help. However, many don’t have any previous farming experience.
“It’s a loss in productivity not having trained people - trained people are able to plant x number of items per day and untrained people about half of that,” Luckshaw said.
It’s a reality several farmers continue to deal with and have been planning temporary solutions for since March.
“There are over 300 positions in the area that need to be filled,” said Jodi Mowatt, who works with the Holland Marsh Growers’ Association.
Farming practices have also changed in this new normal with physical distancing posing a challenge. As a result, crews in the fields wear personal protective equipment and are separated by plexiglass.
The migrant workers, who have arrived, they are isolated from each other while working in the fields and staying at their accommodations at the farm in groups of four.
Some farms have hired extra staff to buy groceries and other necessities for migrant workers while they remain in their homes to help mitigate any potential community spread of the virus.
Some farmers with a smaller operation have turned to family for help in the absence of workers from abroad.
“I had a sister from B.C. come in and a brother from Guelph who drives up daily, it’s a bit of a learning curve,” said Tim Horlings, who farms on about 200 acres.
Horlings relies on four migrant workers from Mexico every year. Two are currently in a mandatory 14 day self-isolation after arriving last week.
Adding to the challenges from the pandemic, an unseasonable snow fall blasted the region last week and overnight temperatures plummeted with frost damaging some crops.
Farmers are now assessing the damage and trying to determine if they can salvage the crop.
“We’ve lost cauliflower and onions and in some cases those will have to be replaced with carrots,” Mowatt said.
Horlings said about 20 acres of onions were damaged at his farm, but it’s too early tell what impact this will have long term.
“I’m sure the yields will be down, we would be happy with 80 per cent coming back,” he said.
Looking at the big picture, farmers say it’s far too early in the season to say how much of an impact the pandemic will have.
Instead, they will keep planting and hope the vital workers from abroad will arrive in time for harvest and help them out.