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Lifting of quarantine for foreign workers good news for Island farmers

Local farmers say the quarantine of seasonal workers was a relatively minor worry as they grapple with skyrocketing costs and the effects of climate change.
Workers pick zucchinis last June on Michell's Farm on the Saanich Peninsula. The farm is bringing in 22 workers from Mexico this year. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Saanich farmer Rob Galey is hiring 21 workers from Mexico to prepare, plant and harvest his vegetable and fruit crops this year.

It’s about the same number he brought in last year, except this time, Galey won’t have to wait for the workers to go through a two-week quarantine in a Vancouver hotel.

The province says it is ending the COVID-19 quarantine program for temporary foreign workers on Thursday, but will keep an assistance program for another year to support self-isolation to curb the spread of the virus.

The Agriculture Ministry said the program for seasonal agriculture workers is ending because of the easing of federal travel restrictions, along with high COVID-19 vaccination rates for incoming workers.

However, the ministry said hiring farms must ensure federal quarantine requirements are met for unvaccinated or partially vaccinated workers. Federal-provincial support for the self-isolation of temporary foreign workers will still be available until next March through a program that pays a maximum of $3,000 per employee, based on all the costs linked to a 14-day isolation period.

Galey said Wednesday all his hired workers are vaccinated, but that’s the least of his worries heading into a new growing season.

He said rising operating costs will have an impact on the farm this year, which will affect prices for everything from strawberries to carrots at the farm gate and in stores.

“The price of fertilizer has almost doubled, fuel costs are at an all-time high, seed prices are very high and wages have gone up,” said Galey. “It’s right across the board … everything is up.

“At what point are people not going to be able to afford healthy food?”

Galey also worries about changing weather patterns, which ranged last year from record-breaking heat to torrential downpours. On many days last year, he said, “it was just too hot to work, and at some points in the day, the fruit is so hot it’s melting.”

At Michell Farms on the Saanich Peninsula, Terry Michell said input costs — money spent upfront — are skyrocketing.

Fertilizer costs $1,250 to $1,400 a tonne, depending on the blend — a huge jump from the $800 he paid last year. “[Suppliers] are telling us to order everything we need now, because it may not be available, and it’s like that everywhere in Canada and the U.S.,” said Michell.

Sanctions on Russia and Belarus spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have caused global shortages and steep price increases in a supply-and-demand crunch that has sent prices of fertilizer and fuel to record highs.

And it isn’t just the price of diesel that’s hurting farmers, it’s all petroleum-based products, such as the plastic bags and cartons farmers use to package their products for consumers and wholesalers, said Michell. Those costs are up by 36%, he said.

The province’s decision to raise the minimum wage by 45 cents to $15.65 an hour on June 1 will also hit the bottom line, he said. “You multiply that with 20 workers at 10 hours a day and that adds up quickly,” said Michell.

Both farmers buy plane tickets for the foreign workers and supply housing for them — Galey’s Mexican workers are expected to arrive in early April.

Michell Farms will bring in 22 workers from Mexico, with 10 arriving April 8 and the others during subsequent weeks.

“This year they just fly into Vancouver, get on the ferry and we pick them up and start work the next day.” said Michell.

The timing should be right, said Michell, as the farm is still waiting for the majority of its 400 acres to dry out, putting the vegetable crops a tad behind schedule.

“I’ve got 150,000 plants sitting and waiting and more coming every day, so we’d like to get going.”

More than 15,000 temporary foreign workers went through the $47-million foreign worker quarantine program, and the ministry said 233 were diagnosed with COVID-19 while in quarantine.

“This shows the important role the program played in preventing workers with symptoms from travelling to farms and communities or causing larger outbreaks, as well as preventing associated economic losses and interruptions to the B.C. food supply,” a ministry statement said.

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