Okanagan and Creston cherry and apple farms desperate for workers

KELOWNA: Okanagan and Creston cherry and apple farms are abandoning some crops due to a lack of workers.  The worker shortage is the result of COVID-19 impacts on international travel and a reduction of travel options within Canada.  The tree fruit industry and the Ministry of Agriculture are asking local workers to consider helping with the harvest so that food waste is reduced.

A new ‘web portal’ (at bcagjobs.gov.bc.ca) has been launched by the BC Ministry of Agriculture to help link between local workers and farms.  The portal is the Farm, Fish and Food Job Connector.  The portal has shown success in the Fraser Valley. 

“We want to ensure that Okanagan workers and farmers are making use of the Farm Fish and Food Job Locator,” said Agriculture Minister Lana Popham.  “Local food is so important to Food Security, and increased use of the portal will help growers get the crop harvested in this year of COVID-19 challenges.”

“The Farm Fish and Food Job Locator highlights the great employment opportunities in agriculture, which is very positive for the ag sector.  We appreciate any assistance to find workers as the farm labour market is very challenging during the pandemic,” said Anju Gill, Executive Director of the BC Blueberry Council.

Cherry producers have reported to the BCFGA that they are finding that the labour shortage is causing them to ‘run out of time’ in harvesting a variety.  Practically, the harvest of one variety stops when the next variety starts to ripen, even though the crop remains unharvested in the first variety.

Late season cherry varieties are being harvested in the Okanagan, Similkameen and Creston Valleys in August.  The early apple variety Sunrise will start harvest in the next week in the South Okanagan and move to the North Okanagan later in August.  Late season apples (such as Gala, Ambrosia, McIntosh and Spartan) are harvested from September to November.

Tree fruit harvest is typically by piece rate (e.g. $/bin, or $/pound), and minimum rates are established that allow workers with good hand-eye coordination and the ability to carry out the physical work to achieve income significantly in excess of minimum wage.

“The harvest work is physical and rewarding,” said Pinder Dhaliwal, president of the BCFGA. “Practically, the work requires the ability to go up and down ladders and to lift weights of up to 30 pounds.  Harvest work often starts early in the day to avoid the intense heat of the day,” Dhaliwal elaborated in explaining what is required of the work.

COVID-19 safety training is required this year.  “A first step in retaining local workers is that the workers recognize, before starting,  the physical nature of the work,” said Glen Lucas, general manager of the BCFGA.  It is a Provincial Health Order requirement that growers provide orientation and safety training. 

Lucas said, “BCFGA staff can provide on-farm orientation to fruit harvesters before the work starts – this is proven to increase worker retention.  Our BCFGA staff also provide information to ensure workers are aware of and following COVID-19 safety protocols.”  Interested workers may also call the BCFGA’s Labour Manager, Ron Forrest, at 778-363-3620 to find jobs.

BC’s interior tree fruit industry represents 800 growers operating orchards that generate $118 million in wholesale revenue and contribute $776 million in economic activity.