The Canadian government’s 30-day ban on passenger flights from India and Pakistan to stop the spread of the COVID-19 B.1.617 variant, could have a big impact on Fraser Valley farmers.
“A number of our workers are in India and they don’t anticipate coming back anytime soon,” says Satwinder Bains, owner of Westberry Farms, a blueberry farm in Abbotsford and director of the South Asian Studies Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley.
Bains says many of the seasonal workers are elderly Punjabi immigrants who go to India in the winter months, their version of snowbirding.
“The immigrant population that usually works on the farms in Abbotsford, the Fraser Valley and in the Okanagan has really changed over the last 20 years. We don’t have as many young people employed anymore in the farms. They’re working in the canneries, nurseries and in landscaping. So, what we’re left with is a lot of elderly who are 60-plus. It’s seasonal work for them,” she says.
Bains says that although temporary farmworkers can fill some of the gap, there is a lot of other work that is available to start preparing for harvest in early June. She has heard anecdotally that some farms didn’t get to picking all of their crops because they couldn’t get people into the field. Some went to machine harvesting, but machine-picked fruit typically has a lower value.
Westberry faced significantly reduced access to labour last year and Bains anticipates a repeat this year.
“We have a massive problem that we’re going to face again this year with migrant labour, and they’re not migrants in the sense of coming and going like temporary farmworkers but they are immigrants to this country,” she says. “With COVID-19 last year, we had a 40% drop in access to labour and we’re going to have the same problem this year with them being stranded.”