Seasonal workers caught up in COVID-19 border closure

Thousands of workers arrive in Canada to plant, tend and harvest crops each year

A seasonal farm worker picks strawberries.
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Updated 1:30 p.m. March 17

Fruit and vegetable growers will be short of workers this growing season with the news that labourers from the Caribbean and Mexico will not be allowed into Canada due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

The federal government closed the border to anyone but Canadians and Americans in an announcement on March 16.

Why it matters: Workers in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program provide much of the labour to plant and harvest Canada’s fruit and vegetable crops. Keeping them out could result in food security issues for Canadians.

Grower Dusty Zamecnik posted on Twitter than F.A.R.M.S., Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services, the organization that coordinates much of the foreign workers in Ontario, sent an update that to growers that no more SAWP workers will able to enter Canada after 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, March 18.

There are two programs through which foreign workers arrive in Canada to work on farms. The first is the Seasonal Agriculture Workers Program, in which workers are in Canada for a limited amount of time. This program is most used by fruit, vegetable and greenhouse growers. The second is the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. In this program, workers arrive and stay for up to two years before they have to return home before reapplying to come back to work in Canada, if they wish. This program is increasingly used by livestock farmers. Both programs could be severely affected by the border closure.

Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) President Keith Currie says the potential lack of labour could be a severe challenge to horticulture farmers.

“The fact they are not getting in […] if that’s not going to happen I’m sure there are a lot of producers that are going to need to reassess their operations,” says Currie.

“We don’t really have a handle on where we’re at yet. We continue to have conversations.”

OFA General Manager Cathy Lennon called the news “devastating” for farms that rely on foreign workers to grow and harvest crops. She said agriculture organizations were working on the issue.

The Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (OFVGA) posted on Twitter that “We recognize the news yesterday came as a shock and if not solved has serious implications for individual growers and the sector as a whole. We are working vehemently with our partners to ensure growers will have the labour resources they require.”

More to come…

Updated with comments from OFA’s Keith Currie.

With files from Matt McIntosh

About the author


John Greig

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig



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