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Thwaites Farms waiting, hoping for good news soon

Update from the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Association on the status of travel restrictions for foreign workers: Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland says there is a "conditional resumption of worker flow in the seasonal agriculture worker progra

Update from the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Association on the status of travel restrictions for foreign workers: Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland says there is a "conditional resumption of worker flow in the seasonal agriculture worker program and temporary foreign worker program." The announcement is dated Friday, March 20. The OFVGA is waiting for more details about the terms of the conditional resumption, including the protocol when they arrive.

The Thwaites family of fruit and vegetable growers was still waiting Friday morning to hear if, and when, the seasonal farm workers so essential to their operation will arrive.

The federal government said Tuesday that due to the COVID-19 virus, the border was being closed to all but Canadian citizens, with limited exceptions. Seasonal farm workers were not included in those exceptions.

By Wednesday, provincial ministers, including Minister of Agriculture Ernie Hardeman, were announcing the seasonal farm workers would be allowed in, while FARMS, an agricultural organization, and the airline set to fly the workers to Canada, were emailing growers to tell them there was some confusion about which temporary workers the exception referred to, and the offshore workers were not included.

Nelson Thwaites and his brothers Graham and Corbin are the fourth generation to operate the family farm, with their father John is still involved and ready with advice. Nelson, who spoke to The Local Friday morning, was waiting for word that the federal government has recognized the importance of the nation’s food supply, correct what is hopefully an oversight and will allow seasonal farmworkers into the country. He says he is still optimistic that will be the case, that the federal government will recognize the importance of the nation’s food supply.

“I’m pretty confident they’ll get here eventually,” he says.

He hopes to hear that news soon — trees need pruning now, not weeks from now.

“CanAg (the airline that flies the seasonal workers to Canada), has buses and flights at both ends ready to go,” he says. As soon as word is received they will be allowed into the country, they will be on their way, he says.

But amongst the mass confusion over the last few days, he says, “I don’t know who we’re waiting for to give those directions.”

About 28,000 workers were expected to arrive in Ontario alone, many this week, the majority over the next two weeks. Thwaites says he thinks the ‘powers that be’ were confusing various programs for temporary workers.

At first it seemed the confusion was over Mexican workers who might be allowed to come through the U.S., but not those flying in from the Caribbean.

Now, Thwaites is hearing that an exception was being made for temporary hospitality workers, but not farmworkers.

The Mexicans planning on coming to Canada are in the same situation as those from the Caribbean, he says.

Some have reportedly driven long distances to the airport, only to find their travel has been cancelled, and they have no money to return home.

But Thwaites says from his conversations he believes the men he is expecting knew before they left home.

He is refraining from calling provincial growers’ associations who are working to persuade the government to lift the restriction, he says. "We’re trying not to barrage them all with phone calls. We know everyone is pulling in the same direction.”

The Thwaites’ 500-acre farm, mostly in Niagara-on-the-Lake and head-quartered on Firelane 11, includes peaches, nectarines, grapes and pears. Recently the farm was enlarged to include an operation in Norfolk County, adding asparagus to their products.

Thwaites was expecting 42 farm workers to fly in Thursday evening, and in previous years, they would be spending their first day getting food, phones and going to the bank. Then, the second day, they’d be out in the fields, doing the work they are not only trained for, but physically accustomed to doing.

He knows the 14-day isolation they will have to undergo means they can’t leave the farm to go to town, but as he understands the rules, they’ll be able to work in the orchards. Pruning peach trees is what is awaiting them when they arrive.

In the meantime, he has advertised for locals who are interested in working, and every morning, he and Graham are spending time training small groups of those who arrive, before heading out to the orchard to prune.

It’s not a great solution, he says. It’s work that requires training, and is physically extremely demanding, especially for those not accustomed to it. Not all last the day, he says, and others don’t come back the next day. “Pruning hardwood is hard work,” he says, and anyone who has worked in peach orchards knows it's not an easy job.

“To put into perspective, it takes about 100,000 man-hours to grow and harvest the farm’s produce," says Thwaites.

He has spoken to other NOTL growers whose workers arrived before the travel ban, and they feel bad about what their neighbours are experiencing, he says.

Thwaites is discouraged about the lack of information being broadcast to the public about how vital the seasonal employees are to the country’s food chain. 

The U.S., which supplies Canada before our local crops are ready, are in the same situation, he says — the U.S. borders are also closed to temporary farmworkers. And American growers don’t plan for shipping crops to Canada once ours are ready for harvest.

“Nobody’s talking about what this will mean for our food supply,” he says.

He has a plan B if the workers do not arrive, but one that will have repercussions for all of us.

Although the Thwaites are doing their best to keep up with the work at hand now, there is no way they will be able to keep up. If seasonal workers aren’t allowed into the country, “we’ll spray off the trees and wait for next year.”

That means killing the buds to protect the orchards, with no crop to harvest this year. The farm will survive without a crop for 2020, and they’ll hope for a good year next year, he says.

But that’s a plan Thwaites is remaining optimistic he won’t have to activate.

In the meantime, Thwaites has sourced food and supplies for the 42 men he hopes to see soon, and once he hears they’re on their way, he will make sure their supplies are ready for them when they arrive, he says. All their houses are stocked already with toilet paper, he adds.

Most of them come with phones, and can use the Wi-fi that is available for them, and those who have bank accounts will be paid by direct deposit. That will carry them through the 14-day isolation period.

“We’re concerned about the virus, the same as anyone else is,” he says.

But he feels confident if the workers get here and stay on the farm, everyone will be safe, and there will be a crop to harvest this year.