It was simple economics that brought German farmer Ole Michaelsen to Canada. But it is his connection with his homeland that has kept his Saskatchewan grain farm thriving.
The former German dairy farmer has used his connections in his home country to attract workers to help him deal with a labour shortage that is plaguing southeast Saskatchewan.
Michaelsen, and his parents Otto and Christiane, have been using their ties in Germany to find immigrant labourers for their grain farm and the farms of many neighbours in the Lampman area.
“Our first worker was a friend of mine who had a farm with his parents in Germany and he offered to come over and help for a season just for the experience,” said Ole.
That first immigrant worker application in 2008 has led to 20 or 30 similar applications each year, as Ole has become an expert at securing student and summer labourers for several farm operations in the area.
The workers usually come to Canada in two groups — one from April to October and a second group of university students comes during the school break, from July to mid-October.
The Michaelsens agree that they could not have grown their grain operation to its current size of 9,000 acres without the help of international workers who come from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The state of the labour market when Ole immigrated in 2007 (followed by his parents in 2008) was such that farm workers were nearly impossible to find.
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“The oilfield in this area draws people away because the money is better and the work schedule is better,” said Ole.
Many European university students and farmhands are eager to come to Canada to work as the jobs here pay up to three times the hourly rate of that in their homelands and working in Canada offers a unique agricultural experience. The Michaelsens pay their employees $2,200 a month, in addition to supplying room and board, a cellphone, use of a vehicle and often they’ll pay for flights as well.
Ole does all of the immigration paperwork, providing his services for free. In exchange, his neighbours will share workers with the Michaelsens. Christiane said the give-and-take atmosphere in Canada is something the family had to get used to.
“In Germany, you would never do that. In Canada we find people more welcoming and friendly and neighbours are happy to work together and help each other out,” said Christiane.
The Michaelsens came to Canada because of a land shortage in Germany that resulted in them not being able to expand their dairy herd beyond 300 cattle. After intensively shopping for land here and considering 68 farms, they decided that the Lampman area offered the best opportunity for farm expansion.
“In 2007 we bought 3,000 acres. The package included the buildings and the equipment,” said Ole, adding that the farmer he purchased from provided advice and the original hired man agreed to stay on for one year to help with the transition.
Now that immigrant workers are an integral part of the operation, the Michaelsens have moved a double apartment trailer onto their yard. It consists of living space for four workers, complete with four bedrooms, two bathrooms and two living rooms.
The students are easy to find because word of mouth creates more than enough applications for the 20 to 30 positions filled in the area each season. A number of them need to complete a six-month practicum on a working farm, and since Ole has his master in agriculture from the University of Berlin, he can grant the students their practicum certificates.
The only problem is that provincial legislation has made it more difficult to bring immigrant workers into Saskatchewan.
“Three years ago the visa application was one page and now it’s a 30-page application and you have to go through a lot of stages, so it makes it really difficult,” said Ole.
The Michaelsens intend to continue to use foreign workers and Ole believes the demand in the area will only increase. Lampman mixed farmer Mark Walter hopes they will be able to continue to obtain working visas, as he currently employs two German workers and regularly employs one or two more students during seeding and harvest. He said he hates to even think about what it would be like without the work the Michaelsens do to attract European labourers.
“It would be a struggle, that’s for sure. We’d have to try to get older farmers, I guess, because it’s really hard down here in the southeast as the oilfield draws away so many young people,” said Walter.
The Michaelsens love their new farming life in Canada, but they can’t imagine being successful without their ability to attract workers from their home country.