Blueberry farm struggles to find workers to pick 1st big crop

·3 min read
Karyss MacDonald is going into Grade 12 and says she is enjoying picking blueberries at Lorne Valley Ranch.   (Al MacCormick/CBC - image credit)
Karyss MacDonald is going into Grade 12 and says she is enjoying picking blueberries at Lorne Valley Ranch. (Al MacCormick/CBC - image credit)

Earl MacCormac has 250 acres of high bush blueberries ready to be picked at Lorne Valley Ranch, but not enough workers to help him harvest the farm's first big commercial crop.

"We've had upwards of 40 people work for me throughout the season, and this year we're down around a quarter of that," said MacCormac, who has managed the farm since it was established five years ago.

"I had one guy come out and he was on EI, and I offered him a job. And he said, 'No, that's not for me. I just want to buy some berries.'"

Nancy Russell/CBC
Nancy Russell/CBC

MacCormac said he has about a dozen people picking most days, half locals and the other half temporary foreign workers from Mexico, who have been working with him on the farm since May.

He said the COVID-19 pandemic has made everything more challenging this year.

Al MacCormick
Al MacCormick

"We tried to bring in a lot more foreign workers this year, because we anticipated needing help," MacCormac said.

"With COVID and all the restrictions, I'm short even on my foreign help. For some reason, they didn't get on the plane, or they were denied entry."

MacCormac is also running a 15-passenger bus daily between the farm and Stratford, at no charge to employees.

He said the pickers get paid about 50 cents a pound, with a bonus if they stay throughout the season.

MacCormac said pickers are making between $15 and $20 an hour, depending on their experience and speed.

Nancy Russell/CBC
Nancy Russell/CBC

Harvest time help

The executive director of the P.E.I. Agriculture Sector Council said she's hearing from lots of farmers in similar situations, especially now that students who have been working on farms are heading back to school.

Laurie Loane said there are more than 75 jobs listed on the council's website.

She said many are not being filled, in part, because of government support programs.

"Typically, people would be looking to get all their EI hours during harvest season," Loane said.

"Because of the programming that's available right now, people aren't coming back to work to get those hours, it seems.

Alex MacIsaac/CBC
Alex MacIsaac/CBC

"For me the solution is, if people are looking at trying to make some extra income and not be home on CERB, this is an opportunity for them to make a really decent income in a very short period of time," Loane said.

"We need the help to get the harvest in."

Wage subsidies

Loane said other agricultural areas have turned to wage subsidies to help attract workers.

"Because if we are hiring local people and helping subsidize those wages, then those people are all supporting their community," Loane said.

Nancy Russell/CBC
Nancy Russell/CBC

Loane said the worker shortage is going to mean a challenging harvest for some P.E.I. farmers.

"I hear desperation from the farmers when they're calling and saying, I need 10 people in the field today. I need 100 people in the field today," Loane said.

"I can't help them, per se. It's the people that are able to go work. Those are the people that can help and support and get that harvest in."

Running out of options

MacCormac said he is even considering a mechanical harvester, even though that's not ideal for the crop.

"It's very discouraging. I put a lot of hours in over the last five years building this farm," MacCormac said.

"I've watched these plants grow, and now we've grown a sellable crop. And it's very frustrating not to be able to pick it at optimal ripeness."

Al MacCormick/CBC
Al MacCormick/CBC

Ideally, MacCormac said, they want to wrap up the harvest by Sept. 15.

More from CBC P.E.I.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting