Ever-changing worker protocols bring farmers out to protest

Farmers, local government, concerned about Haldimand-Norfolk health unit dictates

Farmers took their tractors to Simcoe streets March 23 protesting regional quarantine requirements

“The local health unit has such powers if we don't dot our I and cross our T with our quarantine plans,” said Frank Schonberger with Farmers of Ontario’s Garden, a new grassroots group organized to represent the producers. 

Why it matters: Haldimand-Norfolk County Chief Medical Officer of Health's tight TFW COVID-19 quarantine restrictions threaten fruit and vegetable harvest, particularly early season produce, due to a lack of workers.

Haldimand-Norfolk Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Shaker Nesathurai, already suspended worker flights to a farm that had an 'outbreak,' – defined as one or more positive tests, said Schonberger.   

Nesathurai’s orders under the Haldimand-Norfolk Board of Health Section 22 limit the number of migrant workers able to quarantine in a bunkhouse to three, contrary to the federal standard, which calls for maintaining a social distancing of two-metres during the mandatory 14-day quarantine.

Additionally, his proposed letter of instruction was sent to farmers on the evening of March 14 with an enforcement date of 12:01 a.m. March 15, similarly limited the number of TFWs able to be transported together despite arriving on the same flight and disallowed buses, forcing farmers to use private vehicles instead. 

“This is nothing short of harassment that's going on to the small family farm,” he said. “I have work to be done at home. I have to get my machinery ready, my fields ready, my packhouse ready, my bunkhouses ready – and I'm here fighting for the farmers in Norfolk County.”  

“The inconsistencies in these regulations – it's just unbearable anymore,” said Kristal Chopp, Norfolk County Mayor and Board of Health chair. “We are with you, we are behind you, and we will do whatever is necessary to stand behind you and fight.”

She's requested an urgent meeting with the provincial government, the Minister of Health and Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health because the board no longer feels they can fulfill their legal obligations under the Health Protection and Promotion Act. Chopp said if there is no meeting, the County could end up without a Board of Health.

“All options, at this point, are on the table, and if that requires the Board of Health resigning as a whole, I think we are all prepared to do that,” she said.

While the comment garnered cheers from the crowd, Schonberger was reserving his opinion until action has been taken, adding producers have gotten no help from her to date despite repeatedly bringing the issue to her attention. 

Schonberger acknowledged the overwhelming support from the community, saying he never expected to see 250 tractors filing in behind him when the movement started six days before.

He issued Premier Doug Ford a challenge to come to the region and see how precarious the situation is, but be prepared to work because there’s plenty of land needing tending.

About the author

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Diana Martin

Diana Martin has spent more than two decades in the media sector, first as a photojournalist and then evolving into a multi-media journalist. Five years ago she left mainstream media and brought her skills to the agriculture sector. She owns a small farm in Amaranth, Ont.

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