I am a local farmer who brought in migrant workers. This is how the season went

·4 min read

Peter and Tracy Gubbels are farmers from Mt. Brydges. They grow watermelons, squash and cash crops on their nearly 500-hectare farm. Seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic that’s stretched from planting to harvest, the couple reflect on the challenges and successes of 2020. Here’s how the Gubbels, and their business, weathered the tumultuous farming season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Southwestern Ontario’s vast farm belt was hammered early on in the pandemic by a critical labour shortage.

The province relies on some 20,000 temporary foreign workers each year. But delays in getting those offshore workers into the country, and then their mandatory 14-day isolation, plagued many farms, delaying planting and disrupting early crops.

Then, outbreaks of COVID-19 on farms ravaged the industry. In Ontario, more than 1,800 migrant workers contracted the coronavirus, and three died. The outbreaks were so bad in Windsor-Essex that it kept the region in Stage 2 of the province’s reopening plan, well behind the rest of Ontario.

“The biggest challenge was the labour shortage,” Peter said.

He employs 50 people on his farm, 14 of whom are temporary foreign workers.

His first group of offshore workers usually arrive in May, with the rest on the farm by mid-July. This year, none arrived until mid-June, with some not getting into Canada until August.

So the Gubbels hired a team of high school students and locals to offset their missing labour.

“When they shut the high schools down, that was our saving grace,” Tracy said. “The students were great. Nobody really knew what they were doing, but they got the job done.”

With the inexperienced, patchwork workforce the Gubbels assembled, they managed to plant and harvest their entire crop, despite the worries they faced getting it done.

“That uncertainty of not knowing when our guys were coming, you’re thinking, ‘Oh my God, I spent hundreds of thousands on seeds and preparations that I’m on the hook for,’” Peter said. “It was a real crazy time.”

“I still get choked up when I think about it,” Tracy added. “We were so stressed.”

Dividers between beds in bunkhouses, an extra trailer brought in from New Brunswick for quarantine periods and an abundance of personal protective equipment were just a few of the new safety precautions on the Gubbels' farm.

“It was quite an ordeal,” Tracy said of meeting the new safety regulations placed on farms meant to clamp down on outbreaks of COVID-19.

Each morning, staff members' temperatures are taken and recorded. Everyone wears masks and gloves when needed and frequently washes their hands.

For the Gubbels, harvesting watermelons and now, squash, has been made easier by their method of hand-picking. Watermelon rows are 2.1 metres apart, meaning distancing out in the field wasn’t a problem.

None of their workers have been ill.

“It was a very expensive year, but thankfully it was a very good year,” Tracy said.

Blessed by good weather and an entire complement of temporary foreign workers along with the already hired students, the Gubbels were well set by the time the August watermelon harvest rolled around.

“We had all our guys back, plus the kids,” Peter said. “We were able to harvest, and our production actually went up.”

He said a push on buying local spurred by the pandemic increased demand for their watermelons this year and their team delivered on the harvest.

“Everyone seemed to be pulling the rope the same way. It was us-against-the-world type thing,” Peter said. “But, there were some very challenging and dark times.”

“If it’s going to be the same next year with the workers delayed again, I’d really have to sit back and think about if I’d do it again,” Peter said. “What we went through this year, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

He said he’d opt to grow less labour-intensive cash crops instead. “That uncertainty, not sleeping at night, it’s not worth it," he said.

The extra safety precautions have come at an expense to farmers, and if even stricter measures are added as the federal government has hinted at, that could break the bank for some farm businesses, Peter said.

And while the student workforce saved their planting season, Peter said it would be hard to find locals to do the backbreaking work of hand picking watermelon and squash if they can’t get their offshore workers next year.

Should schools remain open through the spring, hiring high-schoolers will be off the table as well.

Right now, the couple is completing the paperwork to bring back their team of temporary foreign workers in the spring.

Negotiation with purchasers about next year’s prices start up as soon as December.

Any seeds the Gubbels need for the 2021 crop need to be ordered by January.

But it’s hard to plan ahead when much uncertainty looms about what the new year will bring.

“Once you order that seed, there’s no turning back,” Tracy said. “I wish I had a crystal ball.”

maxmartin@postmedia.com

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Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press