Potato stockpiles gone but so too are the farm workers

SALUTE TO AGRICULTURE

One pressure caused by COVID-19 has fortunately eased for Delta farmers but another rather big challenge still looms.

Delta Farmers’ Institute president Peter Guichon, also the chairman of BC Fresh, had a big concern a couple of months ago when restaurant closures due to the pandemic resulted in a stockpile of potatoes.

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While stores continued to sell locally grown reds, yellows and other varieties, Kennebec potatoes, which are almost exclusively grown in Delta in this province, had piled up in storage because that variety is primarily used for French fries and dishes in the restaurant industry.

Fortunately, that stockpile has been removed thanks to Costco and Loblaws deciding to purchase them from B.C. Fresh.

“We were really fortunate. In B.C., all their food service potatoes were sold. I think one of the reasons was that potatoes across the country were kind of short, so the timing worked out really good for us,” Guichon said.

A big concern for farmers, especially berry farmers, has been a shortage of labour.

The DFI’s Jack Bates, who is the B.C. Blueberry Council chair, said more blueberry farmers are having their berries machine-picked but it not only reduces their shelf life but also the ability to be sold for the fresh market.

“When the season started the guys would have a hundred guys last year but this year they’d have something like 30 or 40,” said Bates. “Some people have been using machines and it doesn’t work for the fresh market but at least it’s something, depending on their destination. All the processed market and all the frozen market is picked with harvesters.”

Part of the problem has been due to the Mexican government holding things up due to concerns about its migrant workers’ safety, noted Bates, adding it’s been sometimes a hit-or-miss proposition getting workers to local fields.

“Everyone is feeling the pinch. In the blueberry industry there’s some good fields and some poor fields, so the word spreads amongst the pickers how much they can make, and they might be at your place today but tomorrow they hear the picking is better somewhere else. There’s nothing to tie them to come to work for you,” he said.

B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham in June conveyed concern about the labour shortage, predicting a potential shortfall of up to 8,000 workers in the province.

The government launched a website called the B.C. Farm, Fish & Food Connector in hopes of filling some of those positions.

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