Evidence of meeting #12 for Agriculture and Agri-Food in the 43rd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was production.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Ryan Koeslag  Executive Vice-President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Mushroom Growers' Association
Janet Krayden  Workforce Expert, Canadian Mushroom Growers' Association
Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst  Executive Director, Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council
Cyr Couturier  Chair, Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council
Ken Forth  President, Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services
Pierre Lampron  President, Dairy Farmers of Canada
David Wiens  Vice-President, Dairy Farmers of Canada
Michael Barrett  Chair, Dairy Processors Association of Canada
Mathieu Frigon  President and Chief Executive Officer, Dairy Processors Association of Canada

4 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

I call this meeting to order.

Welcome, everyone, to meeting number 12 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food. It is a beautiful day here, and it looks like it's a beautiful day across the country.

I'd like to outline a few rules to follow.

Interpretation in this video conference will work very much like it does in a regular committee meeting. You have the choice at the bottom of your screen of floor, English or French. When you intervene, please make sure that your language channel is set to the language that you intend to speak, not the floor channel. This is very important. It will reduce the number of times we need to stop because the interpretation is inaudible for our participants. It will maximize the time we spend exchanging with each other.

With a nod, could our witnesses let us know that they understand how this works? I think we have everyone. Thank you so much.

Also, before speaking, wait until I recognize you by name. When you're ready to speak, you can click on the microphone icon to activate your mike.

As I just did, you have to press on the language channel button to switch to French. Make sure your microphone is off when you aren't speaking.

We are now ready to begin; I want to welcome our witnesses to today's hearing.

From the Canadian Mushroom Growers' Association, we have Ryan Koeslag, executive vice-president and chief executive officer, and Ms. Janet Krayden, workforce expert. Welcome to both of you.

From the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, we have Cyr Couturier, chair, and Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director. Welcome to both of you. It's nice to see you again.

From F.A.R.M.S., the Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Service, we have Ken Forth, president. His sound is working. We also have Ms. Sue Williams, general manager of CanAg Travel Services, but I think there's a problem with her sound. Unless they can correct it, we won't be able to hear from her.

With that, we will start with the Canadian Mushroom Growers' Association.

You have seven minutes for an opening statement. You can split it, or one of you can do the seven minutes. Go ahead.

4 p.m.

Ryan Koeslag Executive Vice-President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Mushroom Growers' Association

I'll start off and then pass it over to Janet.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Canadian mushroom industry.

Members of the committee, we come before you today with some grave concerns. It's now the end of May. The pandemic started in March, and we're still fighting for our mushroom farms to get access to a single program. We're very concerned about the lack of funding for farmers to fight COVID-19.

Emergency funding is needed quickly. Since the beginning of March, our farms have incurred major expenses for COVID, in addition to losing major market share, all while being told they are an essential industry. To date, not a penny has been received by our farms.

For the record, our mushroom farms have not benefited from the $50 million for the temporary foreign worker quarantine, because our workers are not seasonal and are already here. When farms expand their housing for social distancing for temporary foreign workers who are already present, these costs are not covered.

There is also the $40 million for food surplus. This does not work, because our production dropped significantly after week four to eliminate throwaways. Also, this program has only been working for oversupply since the end of April.

For food processing, COVID cost relief is prioritizing the meat industry, and the program has not yet rolled out.

We don't care where our funds come from, but as of now, nothing has been received, and we are going to enter into the territory of too little, too late.

Since the start of the pandemic, mushroom farms have implemented costly measures out of their own pockets. Personal protection equipment, Plexiglas dividers, increased housing, increased transportation, staggered isolating shifts and hygiene management supervision are some of the responses that mushroom farms have made. These measures have been estimated to collectively cost over $250,000 a week for the mushroom industry. One mushroom farm spent close to $100,000 in one month, in March, to protect and prevent the spread of COVID-19. This is in addition to the lost production that has been and still is being experienced. More details on these costs are in our full report.

The Canadian Federation of Agriculture's request for over $2.6 billion included Mushrooms Canada's estimates and was far larger than the government's $252 million.

The AAFC programs do not work for our mushroom farms. They're broken for industries like mushroom farms and greenhouses. An example is AgriStability. The AAFC has made AgriStability irrelevant for our industries because of their intensified operations and expanded production, with major exports to the United States. The government must examine the scale of operations with regard to their $3-million cap. If mushroom farms must experience losses of 30% in order to trigger a payment and the payment is capped at $3 million, the program will not stop farms from going bankrupt.

Additionally, when an operation has experienced a major expansion in its previous year and the calculation for the payment removes the highest year and the lowest, the difference between the new expansion and the payment calculation from the average is too great to help with anything. The government calls this the weighted average. This, too, should be examined and removed.

At the end of the day, when it comes to agriculture during the COVID pandemic, the government has implemented every measure imaginable to reduce the payments to farmers. Caps, weighted averages and margin references are all things to stop or reduce payments. It's not a helping hand; it's a costly hesitation and a disservice to our farmers.

We ask the committee this: What does “essential” mean? It's unfair that this essential industry that Canada cannot live without is dying and struggling and being asked to carry the full burden for three months, while payments have been flowing with record speed to so many others. Although we are also called “essential” by provinces, very few have included agriculture as part of their strategy for essential services; hence, none of the supports are for farm businesses or farm workers.

These are difficult times, and beyond lip service, the government's treatment of essential work leaves one to question if the government thinks that farms and food supply are actually essential.

Our second request is for support from the immigration department for improvements to help skilled and trained agricultural temporary foreign workers who are in Canada, including changes to the agri-food pilot, which was recently announced, that adjust the program to remove the cost for verifying high school diplomas. We aren't saying to remove the requirement for a high school diploma, but rather to remove the payment that needs to be made to a consultant to verify a high school diploma during the COVID pandemic.

Before I pass the microphone to Janet, I should mention that there has been one area where the government has been very responsive: Service Canada's surprise inspections. Although we, too, support the inspections and want all workers to be treated fairly, farmers have reported that documents are being required over long weekends, so farm staff who are under extreme stress every day to keep their farm operational also have to work overtime to comply with the temporary foreign worker requests, again adding costs, adding burden and receiving no help from government to date.

With that, I'll pass it over to Janet.

4:05 p.m.

Janet Krayden Workforce Expert, Canadian Mushroom Growers' Association

Thanks, Ryan.

We're here to report to you today that our supplies of the N95 face masks on many of our farms will be gone in two weeks. The N95 face masks are now selling for up to $10 per mask. These masks used to sell for well under $1. Committee members, that is 1,000% inflation.

The N95s are being confiscated at the border. India is no longer shipping, and the face masks from China are defective. If the N95s do not work for health care, they also do not work for the mushroom farms. We need them for worker safety purposes beyond COVID-19 for some varieties of mushrooms, to protect our workers from the spores.

We ask the Government of Canada to make agriculture its number two priority and please include us in the procurement process. All the PPE support for the farmers has been late. A few provincial programs are only now rolling out, three months into the pandemic. In Ontario, the new $2.25-million joint federal-provincial program for producers, called the agri-food workplace protection program, is capped at $7,500 per incorporated farm, so with the costs of the face masks inflated 1,000%, you can see that the funding is not going to go very far.

4:10 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

Thank you, Ms. Krayden. Unfortunately, the seven minutes are up, so I'm going to have to move on to our next organization.

For the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, we have either Ms. Dewhirst or Mr. Couturier, for up to seven minutes.

4:10 p.m.

Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst Executive Director, Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to your study. I'm the executive director of the council. Our presentation focuses on the need for a national labour strategy to stabilize worker availability through the pandemic and beyond.

The workforce needs of Canada's agricultural industry are something we've been examining for more than 10 years. Through research, it's clear that the industry cannot continue to produce healthy, safe and affordable food for Canadians—

4:10 p.m.

Bloc

Yves Perron Bloc Berthier—Maskinongé, QC

Forgive me for interrupting you, Ms. MacDonald-Dewhirst.

Mr. Chair, could we take a little break? We're not hearing the interpretation very well. I think the witness should bring her microphone closer.

4:10 p.m.

Executive Director, Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council

4:10 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

Can you try that again?

4:10 p.m.

Executive Director, Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council

Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst

Yes.

The research is clear: The industry cannot continue to produce healthy, safe and affordable food for Canadians and for global consumers without ensuring that workers are secured and in place to do their jobs.

The COVID pandemic has put a greater spotlight on this, and it has confirmed that there's no more time to waste. We must work toward longer-term and systemic solutions to the persistent labour shortages that the agricultural industry is facing. CAHRC's labour market research has clarified that job vacancy rates in the industry are as high as 10%, which is exceptionally high compared to other industries, and those vacancies are impactful and result in close to $3 billion in lost sales revenue annually for food businesses alone.

Beyond financial losses, farmers' inability to fill all of their vacant positions with either Canadian or foreign workers makes the business of food production in Canada very stressful and difficult.

International workers, as you know, come to Canada to work on farms and fill positions when Canadians can't be found. Although approximately 60,000 foreign workers are brought in each year, tens of thousands of positions still remain vacant. The latest assessments indicate an expectation that the labour gap will grow to 123,000 positions by 2029.

Businesses that aren't able to fill vacancies face production losses and excessive stress. Owners cancel expansion plans, and many report leaving the food business altogether. Securing a full team of workers is challenging for farm businesses at any time. It's especially challenging during a pandemic. However, the pandemic has highlighted that food production is part of Canada's critical infrastructure, and maintaining the ability of food producers to operate effectively, even during a global health crisis, is critically important to every one of us.

Food businesses are expected to continue to operate through the pandemic and, thankfully, have been designated as essential workplaces so that Canadians can enjoy homegrown fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy and grains. However, keeping agricultural businesses operational has not been easy for either industry or government due to the already extensive labour shortages the industry faces and the unique workforce management challenges that exist.

COVID has highlighted not only how complex it is to maintain public health during a pandemic, but also just how important and complex it is to manage workforce issues in this industry. COVID has certainly put a spotlight on the need for focused attention to address the persistent and pervasive issues of workforce shortages that continue to undermine this industry's ability to operate at full capacity. There's a clear need for a national labour strategy to stabilize worker availability and food production through the pandemic and beyond.

Now I'll pass the floor to Cyr.

4:10 p.m.

Cyr Couturier Chair, Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council

Thank you for the invitation to participate.

During COVID, obviously, employers have been struggling with extensive uncertainty about meeting their staffing needs. They have been uncertain about operating realities during the pandemic and about getting their foreign workers into Canada on time. A lot of these decisions about planting and proceeding with production have been filled with an exhaustive list of unknowns. Farmers continue to lack clarity about what their staffing levels will be this year because they don't know if or when their international workers will arrive. They also don't know if workers' absenteeism will increase for Canadian and international workers due to wage benefits like the CERB, public health directives encouraging people to stay home, and limited PPE—you just heard about that. They don't know if new entrants, like students, can be enticed to join the industry during a global health pandemic and be convinced to stay for the whole season. They also don't know the extent to which disruptions across the value chain will impact their operations.

In addition, employers have also been struggling with keeping up to date on new and evolving workplace protocols. An extensive list of government agencies at the federal, provincial and local levels all set expectations for employers. While learning the rules and recommended practices, employers are also working to secure their staff, and they are responding directly to the health and safety concerns of their employees, clarifying rules around new work arrangements, physical distancing, PPE, housing, commuting, outings, etc.

There's a clear need to support the industry employers with their complex HR management activities. CAHRC has been doing this throughout the pandemic, providing access to all farm operations across the country. It's very complicated. Farmers in all of their businesses are still struggling for all of this.

The Government of Canada has demonstrated a commitment during COVID to meaningful consultation, coordination and action to address pressing workforce needs. Better mechanisms have been implemented to connect industry, government, and so on. What we need now is to expand upon this good work and develop a national labour strategy with longer-term activities to refine consultations and improve labour supply and skills.

Now is the time to ensure that the food production system stays operational through COVID and beyond, and is well positioned to overcome the persistent labour shortages that have been limiting growth. What is needed is the proper time, resources and attention put forward to develop and enact a national labour strategy. It's time to listen to the various recommendations of so many reports and committees that have reviewed this serious issue about labour.

The agri-food economic strategy table outlines key recommendations for addressing labour shortfalls in the long term that are aligned with those proposed by RBC, the Conference Board of Canada, CAHRC, HUMA, AAFC's national labour task force, and the Barton report. What all these reports stress is that there needs to be strategic, coordinated action to do three things: continue to monitor the numbers with quality labour market intelligence and research, increase the supply of labour by improving access to temporary foreign workers and generating Canadians' interest in agricultural jobs, and improve the knowledge and skills within the industry by upskilling workers and supporting the HR management skills of employers.

CAHRC has been supporting provincial efforts in these areas, but a national approach is still missing.

4:15 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

Thank you, Monsieur Couturier. I'm going to have to cut you off here.

We'll pass it on to the Foreign Agriculture Resource Management Services, F.A.R.M.S.

Mr. Forth, if you want to do the opening statement for up to seven minutes, please go ahead.

4:15 p.m.

Ken Forth President, Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services

No doubt the farming community in Ontario and Canada will never forget 12:01 on Wednesday, March 18, as it marked the closure of non-residents, and in particular farm workers under the seasonal agricultural worker program, from entering Canada. This was devastating news to stakeholders involved in agriculture and the agri-food business, and this started the massive stress that still remains within agriculture.

The start of the week of March 16, right through to the third week of May, is noted as the peak time frame for seasonal agricultural workers to arrive in Ontario. In excess of 8,700 workers were already scheduled to arrive, with flights arranged, airlines positioned, source countries busy documenting seasonal workers, farm operators preparing for the arrivals and the workers themselves preparing to leave their families for another season.

Overnight, everything came to a standstill. The phone lines were jammed with the first farm operators questioning where the workers were and whether they would arrive in time for spring vegetable planting, fruit tree pruning, asparagus harvesting and ginseng shading, as well as nursery production and flower production, which are always in high demand. In the following days, borders closed to almost all source countries providing farm workers to Canada. The media quickly became the focal point of everyone’s day.

Fortunately for all stakeholders, the announcement came quickly that an exemption under the special exemption was approved for non-resident temporary farm workers to enter Canada. However, farm operators had to act quickly to fulfill the obligations that were now imposed on both farm operators and the arriving temporary workers.

Farm operators' obligations are as follows: one, monitor all persons for the virus; two, facilitate self-isolation according to public health requirements; three, meet minimum standards where housing is provided, to provide social distancing of two meters and to ensure that individuals in self-isolation are separated from those who are not; four, maintain zero contact with older adults; five, provide personal protective equipment, masks, gloves and thermometers, as well as any necessary material to practise adequate sanitation such that surfaces are cleaned and disinfected regularly and there is access to soap and water to regularly wash hands or the use of sanitizer; and six, support efforts to minimize the spread of the virus during and following the 14-day isolation period.

In terms of the health ministry, Public Health Ontario offices play a huge role in the seasonal agricultural worker program by providing seasonal housing inspections every eight months, thereby adding to the integrity and success of the seasonal agricultural worker program. Farm operators relied on the Public Health offices to make sure they were adhering to the virus guidelines, as well as the guidelines set forth by the federal Minister of Health and the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion.

Partial solutions were implemented, with a focus on making sure everyone maintained the following guidance.

Farm operators needed to plan for a 14-day isolation period for all newly arrived farm workers. This includes closely looking at the housing plans to reorganize, if needed, to meet the guidelines. For social distancing, beds were moved further apart. In some cases, partitions were put up. Hotel rooms were rented.

As I’ve already said, they needed to purchase sanitary cleansers and masks.

There was agreement with the farm operators for food provision beyond the 14-day self-isolation period. A number of farm employers have arranged for food pickup or delivery on an ongoing basis to eliminate the farm workers’ need to go to the local grocery stores. The farm workers are made aware that the agreement is voluntary and they have the option to change the process. It has been found that farm workers are generally in agreement with the pros and cons of leaving the farm on a frequent basis. It should also be noted that the general public in Ontario does not like to see foreign workers going into grocery stores anymore. Actually, it’s pretty pathetic how Canadians are acting in some cases in some food stores, but that’s the reality of what’s happening today.

Added thought was put into farm equipment and how best to keep distancing in play. Farm operators have installed Plexiglas and other dividers for the workers on planting machines and when they are sitting closer. This small measure is huge when you consider that it provides a barrier against a potential cough or sneeze.

Farm operators are to monitor the farm workers on a daily basis and to document a plan to remove and quarantine any worker who shows signs of the virus, which would include notifying the Public Health office.

They are to maintain distancing to the extent possible during work hours and supply masks, glasses and face shields. They are to receive and take action on communication updates periodically sent by our office in relation to the virus updates.

Simply, these measures cost the growers a ton of money, and nobody has been there with us on this basis.

The health and safety of Canadians and seasonal and temporary workers in Canada remains paramount. Farm operators and farm workers acknowledge that they have an obligation to remain under strict guidance for the duration of the term of employment.

While the virus continues to present itself, the food supply chain remains viable through the long-standing relationship between Canada and the source countries.

The bottom line is that we need the government to have our backs in this thing if it wants a stable food supply. The farmers of this country have basically been left on their own. Support for agriculture has fallen drastically short. “AgriStability” is a phrase that urban Canada likes to talk about. AgriStability simply does not work, and has never worked. We just need our backs covered, if we want Canada to have a food supply.

Thank you very much for your time.

4:20 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

Thank you, Mr. Forth.

Now we'll go to our question rounds, and Ms. Rood will start us off.

Ms. Rood, go ahead. You have up to six minutes.

May 27th, 2020 / 4:20 p.m.

Conservative

Lianne Rood Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you to the presenters for being here today.

Mr. Forth, I want to address the seasonal agricultural worker program. Could you give us an idea of where we are at, how many vacancies there are right now that are not being filled by workers who have not yet arrived, and how many workers we anticipate arriving at this point?

4:25 p.m.

President, Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services

Ken Forth

As of today, we have 13,438 seasonal agricultural workers who have arrived in the province of Ontario. I'm sorry; that was last year. This year we have 10,964 who have arrived, so we are basically at 81.6% of the number of workers expected to have landed here.

Overall, in all the temporary worker programs we administer, including the agricultural stream, we have landed 16,474 workers this year. Last year, we landed 19,087, so with all three programs combined, we are at 86.3% of the number expected to have landed.

4:25 p.m.

Conservative

Lianne Rood Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

Great, thank you for that.

You mentioned that there's massive stress out in the industry with regard to labour shortage, especially in our produce industry. You mentioned fruits and vegetables, and I understand that you're in vegetable production yourself. Can you give us an idea of...? We've heard that some of these farmers are cutting back production by as much as 25%, partially due to the fact that we are low in our numbers for seasonal workers arriving. The time factor is one, because they haven't arrived on time, and maybe some farmers haven't planted yet. As well, I know that there's a lot of uncertainty with the harvest and with getting workers here.

In terms of food security and our skilled workers, how do you anticipate this playing out in the industry over the course of the planting that's still going on, as well as looking forward to the harvest?

4:25 p.m.

President, Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services

Ken Forth

We do know that for crops like asparagus we expect a 50% loss this year because the workers weren't able to get here on time for that. Some of the vegetable people who plant crops annually have cut back by as much as 25% because they're afraid of what the market is going to be. In a lot of cases, the restaurants aren't open anymore, so where's that food going to go? As well, there is the fact that we are short of labour by up to 20%, so they have cut their production.

The other folks, who can't cut their production, are those who grow asparagus, strawberries, tree fruit, grapes and all that kind of stuff. They are being as efficient as they can, but a lot of people are worried that they are going to plant and have a crop, and all of a sudden there won't be anybody to take it off. If anybody thinks next year will be better, I can tell them that if that kind of devastation happens on any farm, next year isn't going to happen.

4:25 p.m.

Conservative

Lianne Rood Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

Thank you.

The government has put out this program of $1,500 per foreign worker to help cover quarantine costs. Have you heard from any farmers that they have received that money yet? I've heard that they're thankful that there is some money available, but some of these costs per worker, if they are housing them in hotels, are $3,000 to $4,000.

Can you let us know where farmers are at with receiving money in that program?

4:25 p.m.

President, Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services

Ken Forth

I've heard that some people have some problems accessing it, but I haven't heard of anybody's getting it yet. However, it's early in the game. We still expect it to happen. The Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food called me personally before the announcement. She told me that it was $1,500 and that's the way it was, and I thanked her very much. Then Agriculture Canada got involved, and there are a whole bunch of stipulations, t's to cross and i's to dot.

That's not what we were told, and some people from Agriculture Canada reiterated to us on a phone call the other day that this is a windfall. Well, of the $1,500, at least $1,000 is the wages that we have to pay for the worker to sit in the bunkhouse. If you add all the other things that happen with that, there isn't much of a windfall there. If you're into hotel rooms and that kind of stuff, you're into a couple of thousand dollars more. Most of us have either rented more bunkhouse space or put trailers in or whatever so that we can isolate different groups.

It's gratefully received, but don't give me any hassle about 1,500 bucks, because it doesn't cover it all. It does help, though.

4:25 p.m.

Conservative

Lianne Rood Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

Thank you.

Mr. Chair, how much time is left?

4:25 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

You have about 50 seconds.

4:25 p.m.

Conservative

Lianne Rood Conservative Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, ON

Just quickly, Mr. Forth, you also mentioned massive stresses. I'm wondering if you can touch on integrity audits. We've heard some negative things about those.

4:30 p.m.

President, Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services

Ken Forth

It's not their fault, but in the last five years they have scared the heck out of farmers, without a doubt.

Now they're doing these virtual tours of the bunkhouse. That's something that the local public health units have already done. I know where they're going, and I have to say it is getting better. I'm not getting the complaints I used to have. All we've asked for them to do is to be professional about it and to have no personal agendas. We want every inspector to do it the same and ask for what they want. The other day we even suggested that they film the bunkhouse prior to the people going in, because one inspector asked a farmer to go in when it was already isolated.

4:30 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Pat Finnigan

Thank you, Mr. Forth. Thank you, Ms. Rood.

Now we have Mr. Ellis for six minutes.

4:30 p.m.

Liberal

Neil Ellis Liberal Bay of Quinte, ON

Thank you. I would like to thank everybody for attending today.

This goes out to the mushroom growers. I wonder how the last 10 years of your business have been. Has it been up or steady?