Greenhouse association defends growers against growing ‘stigma’
WINDSOR, ONT. -- The pandemic has put many aspects of normal life and work and under the microscope and one of the sectors brought under the lens most frequently includes farmers and greenhouse growers.
But a greenhouse industry association is responding to criticisms about worker testing and living quarters for temporary foreign workers.
The Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers (OGVG) is an association that represents about 200 farms — 117 of which are in Windsor-Essex.
“In March, everything was tickity-boo, everything was going along just well,” recalls Joe Sbrocchi, the general manager for the OGVG. “And then all hell broke loose.”
Since then, outbreaks at a dozen operations with COVID cases now topping 1,100 workers across the region. The mounting case-count has brought scrutiny from members of the public, advocacy groups and the government.
“Farmers, greenhouse, all of agriculture are all in a tremendous strain and stress, there’s no doubt about that,” Sbrocchi says.
But he says farmers, without a playbook, have tried to do the right thing from day one, including mandatory PPE, cohorting workers, the installation of protective screens and worker testing.
More than 50 of the region’s 176 farms have now undergone testing, covering nearly 50 per cent of all workers in the sector, according to Sbrocchi.
“We wanted all farm workers to be tested, not just the guest workers that come in and that became a bit of a challenge,” he says.
Testing became an even bigger challenge after Leamington’s Nature Fresh Farms reported 191 positive cases in a single day and was forced to isolate a large portion of its workers already suffering from quarantine fatigue.
Sbrocchi says the situation put fear into farmers and workers alike.
“When 191 people who tested positive, all but eight of them were asymptomatic,” Sbrocchi says. “They felt nothing and were saying ‘what do you mean I’ve got to go spend another 14 days in isolation?’”
But Sbrocchi maintains testing is one piece of the puzzle, providing a snapshot for a very brief period of time, but is not a silver-bullet solution to the COVID-19 pandemic on farms. His association supports ongoing on-farm testing.
Another area of significant media attention has been on migrant worker living quarters — often called bunkhouses. These are congregate living settings, with as many as 20 people living under one roof.
Sbrocchi says his members currently meet and exceed the minimum standards set out by six different government agencies — and yet farmers remain open to changes.
Sbrocchi recently learned through the media that the federal government and ministry of labour is “weeks away” from unveiling a new set of standards. But until the feds push out new COVID-era rules — $12 million in planned developments will remain on hold.
“We want to do the right thing, but we don’t want it changed on us in a few months or a year,” Sbrocchi says. “I don’t think that will be fair for anybody.”
The federal government recently announced $58 million towards support and protection of foreign workers in the agri-food sector. The money will go toward improvements to living quarters, says Sbrocchi, who adds the money is for farmers across Canada. He expresses fear the assistance will fall short of what’s needed to really address the core issue of adding more housing and reduce the number of people living in one congregate setting.
Sbrocchi tells CTV News growers want a voice at the table in developing those standards and other new pieces of legislation to ensure lessons learned during the pandemic will help provide lasting solutions to protect the viability of the industry.
“We candidly admit we’re not perfect,” Sbrocchi asserts. “But we do, and we’re fixated on becoming the best leaders in agriculture in this country and really global in greenhouse farming. And the treatment of our workers is absolutely a piece of that.”
Sbrocchi warns mounting costs brought on by the pandemic may ultimately lead to higher food prices. For that reason, he’s concerned about the future of agriculture in Canada. He adds public and government support for farmers will be key.
“Be a cheerleader of your farmers because they’re the ones who feed you,” Sbrocchi says. “We are fixated on coming out the other side being stronger and being there for Canadians. We take our role in the food supply of this country incredibly seriously and also, we’re the future of it.”
Sbrocchi says workers are paid minimum wage — but they ultimately cost the farms much more. Sbrocchi describes the pay as a decent wage they then take back home to their families — with farms supporting nearly 10,000 seasonal workers in the region.
“In reality, it would be great to get back to the old normal, I don’t anticipate it will look somewhat like it was, but we’re anxious to help form a new normal,” he says.
The OGVG is also striving to engage with the public head-on over the coming weeks.
The association has planned virtual town halls so it can respond to questions directly from the public “to help dispel myths” in the community.
The virtual town halls start Thursday, Aug. 13, and will run for five weeks.