Challenges on a vegetable farm can be slightly different than those on a grain farm. At the Connery’s Riverdale Farms in Portage la Prairie, Man. production costs and availability of workers are always on the mind.
“Because we’re a veg farm and the crops that we grow are hand harvested, not mechanically harvested, almost half of our expenses are labour,” said Beth Connery, owner of Connery’s Riverdale Farms, during a farm tour for the Canadian Farm Writer’s Conference on Sep. 20.
Connery’s Riverdale Farms is a 1,100 acre fruit and vegetable farm located by the Assiniboine River south of Portage la Prairie. The family operation grows asparagus, strawberries, broccoli, carrots and squash, with rotational crops of wheat and soybeans. The Connery family has been running the farm since the 1970s.
The fruit and vegetable operation relies on staff to function. All of the Connery’s fruits and vegetables, except for carrots are harvested by hand. Since the beginning the farm has relied on temporary foreign workers through the federal government’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP).
“It’s an ongoing and never-ending search to find some people who are willing to do the work that we have out in our fields,” Connery said.
Traditionally workers have come from Mexico, but lately the Connery’s have also received workers from Jamaica. Turnover rates are low and most years the majority of workers return to the farm.
Workers start to arrive in May, with the Connery’s staggering their arrivals, and then most stay until harvest is finished. A few are kept on past harvest to work in the warehouse, but they all must leave by Dec. 15. Currently the Connery’s have 41 workers from Mexico and 10 from Jamaica.
Connery’s grown children are also involved in the farm. Her son Chris works in the fields, her daughter, Samantha, does administrative work and runs the warehouse and her son-in-law, Kyle Nichol, is the farm handy-man. Connery attends meetings and is generally in charge of the whole farm.
The work for the Connery family doesn’t just stop on the farm as many of the family members are on various agricultural boards. Connery is chair of the Peak of the Market board and chair of the labour committee for the Canadian Horticultural Council. Samantha is a board member for the Keystone Agricultural Producers.
The Connery farm markets their fruits and vegetables through Peak of the Market. The strawberries however are sold as a U-pick operation.
Peak of the Market is a Manitoba-based fruit and vegetable marketing board that controls the sale of provincially grown products into stores in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta mainly. Occasionally products are also sold in the United States and British Columbia.
“We are members of Peak because we grow carrots. A separate issue is our summer crops, our asparagus and our broccoli and our squash and we actually do a separate contract with them to market those for us which means that we don’t have to have anybody taking care of sales or shipping, it saves us those positions,” Connery said.
Other costs for the farm include keeping up housing facilities for the temporary foreign workers, electricity costs and payroll taxes.