Province pledges $10 million to protect farm workers

·3 min read

The province has committed $10 million for Ontario fruit and vegetable farmers to buy protective equipment, modify workspaces, and cover transport and housing costs in the event of COVID-19 outbreaks this year.

Agriculture Minister Ernie Hardeman unveiled the revamped Enhanced Agri-food Workplace Protection Program on Thursday.

Businesses can apply starting April 22 for COVID-related expenses retroactive to March 13, up to a maximum of $15,000 per operation.

“I think everyone has genuine concerns about this growing season” in light of increasing COVID-19 numbers across the province, Hardeman said.

“But I know farmers and agribusiness have worked and continue to work very hard to ensure this will be a safe growing season, with positive outcomes for them and their workers.”

The program is the successor to a $26.6-million agri-food safety fund jointly administered by Ottawa and Queen’s Park last year.

Hardeman said this round of funding is targeted to fruit and vegetable growers and processors and distributed solely by the province, while Ottawa has other funds available to help farmers keep their operations safe.

“Some of the modifications that were needed (on farms) are still there from last year, so that doesn’t need to be done again. So we believe the $10 million will meet the challenges that we’re facing,” Hardeman said.

“If the pandemic carries on and we need to reconsider, we’re quite prepared to do that.”

Peggy Brekveld, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, welcomed the news.

“Extending funding and access to this program will help address the concerns we’ve heard from farmers regarding cost and availability of personal protective equipment,” she said.

“OFA appreciates the efforts of the Ontario government to deliver this program, and we encourage farm businesses struggling with PPE shortages to utilize these resources to protect the health and safety of our essential workforce.”

Based on feedback about last year’s program, Hardeman said farms that employ three people are now eligible for funding — down from a minimum of five employees last year — and a variety of primary processors — businesses that clean, package and store products before they hit the shelves — can also apply.

The application process has been simplified to help farmers get needed funds more quickly, the minister added.

“You don’t have to have approval in order to get paid. Once you have purchased the product, if it fits the category, you can then apply to get repaid,” Hardeman said. “We want to make it as simple as possible so (farmers) can spend their time keeping workers safe.”

While confirming that migrant farm workers are a “high-priority” population within Ontario’s vaccine matrix, Hardeman did not commit the province to vaccinating workers when they land at the airport.

Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health, had previously said the province would “probably” start airport vaccinations if the federal government balked at a request from Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, medical officer of health in Haldimand-Norfolk, to assume that responsibility.

“We’re looking at all options, which could include doing a program at the airport,” Hardeman said.

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator