The prospect of a record cherry crop has Okanagan growers scrambling for workers as a heat wave accelerates ripening.
While arrivals of seasonal foreign workers are above last year, BC Fruit Growers Association president Pinder Dhaliwal expects just half the number of domestic backpackers to arrive. These usually account for 4,000 workers in addition to the nearly 6,200 foreign workers who arrive in the Okanagan. Backpackers from abroad are also non-existent.
“Everybody that you talk to is short 50% or 75% of their labour force right now,” he says.
Good weather this year is also delivering a bigger crop, compounding issues created by a lack of workers.
“Compared to last year it’s a nice crop,” says Dhaliwal. “And of course, over the years there’s been more cherry trees into the ground. … It’s all adding together right now in a dramatic shortage.”
The first cherries arrived at the BC Tree Fruits packinghouse from the southern Okanagan on June 13, and within days BCFGA was calling for all hands on deck to bring in the harvest.
“Okanagan and Creston cherry farms are worried they may have to abandon some crops due to a lack of workers,” the association said in a press release. “Workers are needed in the South Okanagan now, and the harvest dates for the North Okanagan will start in a couple of weeks.”
But available workers are already stretched thin. Seasonal workers were often delayed, meaning they’re catching up on work, thinning apples and suckering grapevines.
“All the way around there’s demand,” says Dhaliwal.
But there’s good news. Harvesting work pays well, according to a 2019 study of BC’s piece rates. Cherry pickers are among the best paid in the province, meaning that those who can spare the time will be welcomed by farmers and receive good wages for this essential work.
With files from Tom Walker