Labour shortages are especially problematic for potato growers, and many other Prairie farmers are also feeling the squeeze
This year, many prairie potato growers will face labour shortages during the busy harvest season. The reasons are complex, but the result will be the same: greater stress for human resources managers on commercial potato farms and longer hours for all hands on the fields.
“If I got three skilled applicants today I’d hire them on the spot,” says Edwin Klassen, human resources manager for Kroeker Farms, which produces conventional potatoes, along with potatoes, hemp, corn and onions in its organic division, near Winkler, Man.
“Right now the labour market is very tight. I’m getting very few quality applicants for hire,” says Klassen. “I’ve been in this position for five years and in the past I would very often have had a list of anywhere from 10 to 20 applicants who would want to be grading potatoes, and since last summer that list is down to two or three.”
On an operation as large as Kroeker Farms, a large workforce is needed year round, but particularly in the busy spring and autumn months. “I know that other potato growers and cereal farms are drawing labour from Winkler, Morden and other areas as well,” says Klassen. “Quite a few grain farms are operating 10,000 to 20,000 acres, so they have a workforce of a dozen or more. They’re all looking for the same skills — guys who can operate equipment or repair a piece of equipment.”
Klassen says their operation has a pressing need for workers who can multi-task in the shop, as well as welders and truck drivers, but seasonal positions are hard to fill locally. Training for some positions can take up to two years, but most farm labour positions are not considered “skilled” jobs by the government, which makes hiring seasonal migrant workers more difficult.
“I tried to get a skilled land-leveling person from Belize last year but the government denied the applicant based on it being an ‘unskilled’ position,” says Klassen. “But the people we use on our land-leveling crews have to operate computerized tractor and GPS systems and be able to level land within inches, and this particular individual had been doing this in Belize for a number of years.”
Potato growers across the country have also been expressing concerns about recent Employment Insurance reform, which requires that workers to travel up to 100 kilometres and accept jobs which pay as little as 70 per cent of their previous hourly wage. Announced as part of 2012’s March budget and implemented in January this year, the changes have many growers worried that labour shortages will be exacerbated this harvest.
This is especially true in the Prairies, where potato operations compete with cereal growers and other major industries for quality applicants.
“Some of the new EI rules mean that if people are laid off from a job, they need to continually be looking for new employment. I know there are some farms that will hire people for spring then lay them off for the summer with the hope that they can recall them in the fall, so there’s concern that this practice won’t work as effectively as it has in the past,” explains Keith Kuhl, president and CEO of Southern Manitoba Potato and president of the Canadian Horticultural Council.
“It’s one of the areas that we’re in discussion with the government on at the national level through the Horticultural Council, and we’re hopeful we can find ways to work with the government to ensure the needs of the community are addressed on an ongoing basis.”
According to Kuhl, who also serves as chairman of the board at Peak of the Market, many large-scale Manitoba growers rely on seasonal migrant labour because Canadians are simply not applying for available positions. Southern Manitoba Potato, he says, continues to hire seasonal workers from Mexico and Belize, most of whom hold Canadian citizenship while making their permanent residence in their home countries.
“Most times the reason that [growers are] bringing people in from other countries is that even if there were Canadians available, they won’t do the kind of work that’s required by these farms,” says Kuhl.
Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of United Potato Growers of Canada, says that regardless of whether the positions are skilled or unskilled, short-term positions are difficult to fill on most potato operations, unless growers are able to hire migrant workers. “If it was for a year-round job it would be easier to hire people,” he says. “The three most critical things to harvesting a potato crop are good weather, good equipment and good labour. It’s a pretty important factor in getting the crop harvested.”
For Klassen and other prairie potato growers, besides harvesting countless high-quality spuds, finding good labour might be their biggest challenge this fall. †