Tom Michell says Michell’s Farm Market has been extremely busy, even with social distancing protocols in place. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)

Greater Victoria farmers hopeful despite strain of COVID-19 pandemic

Farmers face foreign worker shortage, physical distancing challenges

Between closed borders, closed restaurants and social distancing orders, Greater Victoria farmers are adjusting to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic like everyone else.

Tom Michell of Michell’s Farm says the extent of the impact won’t be known until it comes time to sell product to wholesalers who may have less demand from restaurants and cafeterias. But in the meantime, Michell’s Farm Market is busy as ever.

“A lot of people are buying more, their carts are more full,” Michell said. “A lot of people are coming to buy whatever is local now, I think they’re going to really realize how important it is to support local farms.”

But Michell says migrant workers – of which the farm would normally have about a dozen by now – may also be in short supply. In the coming weeks, the farm hands would help prep the fields, plant and look after irrigation lines.

“It’s nice if you can keep the same staff coming back year over year, they know the system of the farm, they know where the equipment is, they know the routine,” Michell said. “Another couple of weeks, if they don’t come, there will start to be a strain.”

READ ALSO: COVID-19: Help for agriculture industry as Farm Credit Canada receives $5B increase

It’s a similar concern for Rob Galey, who say his mainly fresh-market farm is about three weeks behind on labour.

“We do not foresee any issues of selling product,” he said. “Labour is the only issue right now. I have over 100,000 strawberry plants in the cooler for over a week that should have been in the ground already, and more are coming.”

By mid-April, Galey says he would usually have about 30 workers in the fields. These days, he only has around six people per day.

“We’ll be harvesting by the end of May and that’s when we’ll really need the labour crunch.”

While planes of foreign workers are beginning to arrive in the province, workers are required to self-isolate in government-managed accommodations for 14 days before they go to their respective farm positions. The B.C. government has also released guidelines for farms on increased handwashing, hygiene, cleaning and physical distancing amongst staff.

For the Silver Rill Corn farm, labour isn’t an issue – at least not yet. Co-owner Wendy Fox says they have enough employees now, but a worker shortage could be a problem once they start harvesting.

For Fox, a bigger concern is getting the market COVID-19 ready in time for the busy season.

“It’s not going to be the destination that it used to be. People liked to do the farm outing…it’s going to be difficult to say to our customers, ‘We’re going to ask you not to bring your family or your kids to run around at the farm.’”

Fox said the farm hasn’t worked out the details, but will likely offer online and drive-thru ordering. She feels hopeful that people will continue to support local farms and markets through the summer, even if they can’t enjoy them the way they normally would.

“I’m optimistic. I’m not panicking,” she said. “I’m confident that people will support local and we’ll get everything moving as best we can.”

Last month Farm Credit Canada received a $5-billion increase in lending capacity from the federal government to provide financial flexibility for food producers across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.

READ ALSO: COVID-19 pushes Canadian food industry to tipping point: Federation of Agriculture



nina.grossman@blackpress.ca

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