Seasonal farm worker shortages and concern for the safety of residents are top of mind for Keremeos locals amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Shannon Dininny, File photo)

Businesses in South Okanagan town adapting, despite the odds

Keremeos mayor says farm worker shortages, concern for the safety of residents top of mind

Seasonal farm worker shortages and concern for the safety of residents are top of mind for Keremeos locals amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Without workers, many farms around the Okanagan and Similkameen have been struggling with the tough decision of potentially halting their crops and trying again next season.

Keremeos Mayor Manfred Bauer said locally, farms are struggling to find workers, much like many other parts of the world.

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

“They (farms) feel that they don’t have enough workers this year, and hopefully if they get them, they will come in time,” said Bauer.

“Anybody has, kind of, concerns about getting enough workers at the right time.”

Farmers around the country are fearful that even if they do plant a crop, they will not have sufficient labour to harvest and process it.

Already, farmers are facing increased costs associated with keeping livestock for an extended period, due to reductions in processing capacities. They are also facing an increase in costs associated with purchasing the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) for their workers.

In Keremeos, Bauer said there are hardly any domestic or transient workers in town. He said this could be a result of a possible extended start to the tree planting season, or that some are hesitant to travel due to COVID-19.

A recent provincial order closed all parks, limiting the amount of places where transient workers can stay. The mayor stressed these workers are needed in their communities, both to sustain local economy as well as food security.

Some communities, Bauer said, may have put out some “premature resentment” regarding transient workers and the stay-at-home order, “despite the fact that the province has very clearly said they (the workers) are essential services.”

READ MORE: Thank you to Keremeos’s essential workers

“I think the majority understands that we need the foreign as well as domestic workers, on our farms, to provide food security,” he added.

“This is something that goes throughout the Okanagan, whether it’s growing grapes, growing ground crops, or fruit trees or produce, it’s something that we need in order to provide food security, and in order to do that we need farm workers.”

He referenced many measures already in place by the province to ensure everyone — locals and foreign workers — stay safe while continuing to provide a service.

“Obviously communities are concerned that there could be misbehaving, but on the other hand, you know, domestic workers, students, summer students, can come from anywhere,” Bauer said.

“From Cape Breton to Australia to Salmon Arm, and just like people from Quebec, they have to follow the same rules and regulations and directives and I’m pretty sure that they don’t want to get sick either.”

Information about this can be found on the village’s website.

COVID-19 has forced some Keremeos businesses to close completely, but others are adapting in any way they can.

Some food stands, restaurants and business are remaining closed to the public but delivering food and other goods to customers’ cars or homes. Some are strictly online. Even some wineries are providing take-out.

Car mechanics are in high demand, insurance brokers and pharmacies are still going strong, with new safety protocols in place. Construction companies remain active.

Bauer said in conversation with some companies, a few workers have opted not to come to work but overall they have not seen a large reduction in service.

“It’s a matter of adaptation,” said Bauer. “Some people try to adapt, and others just don’t. It’s a good mixed bag here.”

Right now, growers are considering what they can’t do, as they face a weakened financial position due to COVID-19. Some farmers are spray-thinning fertilizer to the point where their trees lose their blossoms. This ensures the trees survive, but will not produce fruit that season.

Bauer said locally, he has not yet heard of any farms doing this.

“I know a couple of larger farmers with 40 and 50 acres here, and they do not do that,” he said. “I have not heard of anyone who wants to do that.

“I can’t say that there’s nobody, but I certainly haven’t heard that.”

Nearby to Bauer’s home is a farmer, who he said is still going ahead with growing season preparations. “In fact, I’m standing in front of a three-acre nectarine plot in bloom, beautiful,” he said.

READ MORE: Penticton Farmers Market switches to online marketplace


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