KELOWNA – Fruit growers who employ temporary workers each summer may find a phone app being trialed this season will help fill the gap left by the retirement of long-time BC Fruit Growers Association liaison Ron Forrest.
“Over the last 15 years, Ron and other BCFGA team members have welcomed, provided safety and orientation training, and directed travelling backpackers to jobs on Okanagan farms,” says BCFGA general manager Glen Lucas. “As a result of Ron’s retirement and new direction at the Tree Fruit Industry Stabilization Plan, the BCFGA is no longer conducting the summer farm labour initiative.”
Those will be big shoes to fill.
“I’m not sure people were really aware of all the work that Ron did on behalf of growers in the valley,” says Tyrion Miskell, executive director of the BC Grape Growers Association.
Besides English, Forrest was fluent in French and Spanish and could get by in another couple of languages. His years of experience and easy-going manner allowed him to recruit and connect with temporary workers both from within Canada and internationally.
He also had a track record with growers, who knew he could provide workers, teach them safety and picking skills and step in if there was a problem.
Miskell is leading a cross-industry labour committee, a recommendation of the province’s tree fruit stabilization committee report last summer.
“It doesn’t matter what you grow, we all need farm labour,” Miskell says.
Representatives of the BC Grape Growers, BC Cherry Association, BCFGA, BC Tree Fruits Co-op and the province have been meeting to come up with strategies.
One of the committee’s goals is to change the image of temporary labour.
“We want to move away from the terms ‘Quebecois’ or ‘backpackers,’ says Miskell. She believes there is a certain stigma there that, in part, has discouraged locals from taking farm jobs.
“We are trying to rebrand the industry with a positive spin,” Miskell says. “We are advertising for ‘branch hands’ using positive hashtags like #sweetlife, #branchhands and #plumjobs.”
Temporary employees make a valuable contribution to the fruit industry, Miskell notes.
“On-farm jobs can allow for adventure, flexibility and meaningful work. We hope that locals who are looking for a bit of extra money will consider on-farm jobs.”
But they needed a platform, something BC Cherry president Sukhpaul Bal pointed out at one of the committee’s early meetings.
“We needed a kind of dating app where workers and employers could connect and organize meeting for
on-farm work,” says Miskell. “We found CrewDriver, which is a platform designed in Vancouver that connects employers and workers in the film industry, an industry that relies heavily on a gig economy of temporary workers.”
The committee is running a pilot this summer via BCFruitWorks.com, which lets employers register for direct, easy connections with potential employees.
“This is a pretty low-tech system that works off your phone,” explains Miskell. “We want to be able to connect growers in their orchards with workers who may be camping.”
Miskell says the app also allows growers to message workers, telling them not to come if it’s raining, for example.
“You don’t need the Internet to run it, and you won’t be making phone calls all day to organize help,” she says.
Many growers have their own relationship with returning workers, Miskell acknowledges. “But we encourage them to sign up as well,” she says. “Not only will they be able to source a temporary replacement for a sick worker, but we may be able to keep their workers in the valley longer and have them go on to help at other farms.”
An HR kit is also in the works.
“We are offering supports to employers to be more creative in advertising their jobs,” Miskell says. “You have to sell what you offer. You are competing with other growers and other industries in the valley.”
Growers interested in participating in the pilot project can send an email to [email@example.com] with “INTERESTED” in the subject line to receive set-up information.