Up to 6,800 seasonal foreign farm workers like Felipe Floriano-Garcia, who has been working at Dan’s Farm and Country Market for 12 years, will be able to enter British Columbia despite COVID-19. (Sarah Ponchet/Submitted)

Central Saanich farmer welcomes pending arrival of foreign seasonal labour

Federal government announced Wednesday up to 6,800 seasonal farm workers can arrive in B.C.

A Central Saanich farmer says it is a “huge relief” that thousands of foreign seasonal workers are able enter British Columbia despite the current travel ban because of COVID 19.

“It’s a huge relief knowing that they will be able to come,” said Sarah Ponchet, who helps to manage Dan’s Farm and Country Market owned by her father Dan Ponchet.

“We will be able to continue to farm. They won’t have any loss of crops or anything like that.”

She made the comments Thursday morning, hours after an announcement from the federal government that up to 6,800 people in Canada’s seasonal agricultural workers’ program (SAWP) will now be able to come to B.C. to help fill vacant agricultural jobs.

The announcement came after growing concerns about the effects of the travel ban on local farm operations. Both Ponchet and Terry Michell of Michell’s Farm Market had warned of food shortages earlier if local farms could not access seasonal labour from abroad.

“If we don’t have the labour, there will be [shortages],” he said Wednesday afternoon. “It goes hand-in-hand. “Many of the crops grown on this farm are labour intensive. There are some crops that we will plant, but it takes a lot of money to get the seed and put it in the ground and grow, and if we don’t have the harvesters, or people to weed and things like that, then it is going to be a lotal loss.”

Michell’s Farm Market, like so many, farms across the region, throughout B.C. and right across Canada depend on this seasonal labour in the absence of local labour and it is their absence that is currently holding back farmers, he said.

Despite its decision to lift the ban, the federal government said that workers will need to self-isolate themselves for 14 days once they enter Canada to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

B.C. Growers Association general manager Glen Lucas estimates that 1,700 SAWP have already arrived in B.C. to work this year before the travel restrictions were implemented.

RELATED: Canada to close borders to most foreigners, but not to U.S., to slow spread of COVID-19

RELATED: Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce warns of economic consequences from COVID-19

One of them is already working on Ponchet’s farm, having arrived in early March with a departure date sometime in the fall.

Ponchet said he has been doing “O.K.” under the circumstances. “It is obviously a stressful time for everybody all the world, but he is happy that he is here, because he is able to send money home to his family,” she said.

“He hasn’t expressed [any desire to return home], as far as I know. So far, he is grateful that he has made it here, because they depend on this money coming in.”

Eight more will eventually join him, starting next week. They will self-isolate on the farm with details to be worked out. Like they would anyway, seasonal workers will have access to media, including television and electronic devices.

“They have internet, so they will be able to entertain themselves. Other than that, we will make sure that they are stocked with food and everything they need.”

The COVID-19 situation also has two other dimensions, one personal, one professional, for Ponchet and the farm.

Her dad, Dan, remains in Peru where he and his wife have been visiting family since early March. Last-ditch efforts to leave that country after it announced border closures failed with the next scheduled return date now being March 31.

“Luckily, my mom is from there and they are with my family, so they are comfortable.”

The store has also seen business pick up as residents are trying to get groceries, she said. “The real big stores are so busy,” she said. “For the time of year, it is definitely busier than it usually is.”

While the store does not have lines out the doors, Ponchet said the business is open to changing its hours if necessary.

“At this moment, we are just taking it day-by-day, and see how it goes,” she said.

Celia Michell of Michell’s Farm Market has also noticed an uptick in business at the farm store, starting last week at the latest.

“We are pretty steady,” she said. But the store has no plans right now to extend hours. “We are short-staffed,” she said.


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