Labour shortage in Canadian agriculture is largely dependant on temporary foreign workers. Many farmers struggle each year to find seasonal workers to sustain their operations. Moreover, Canada is heavily dependent on imports of fresh fruits and vegetables to meet total market demand due to the Canadian limited growing season. Amid the coronavirus pandemic situation, rethinking aspects of Canadian agriculture has become pivotal.
Temporary Foreign Workers
Each year, Canada welcomes thousands of temporary foreign workers (TFW) to mitigate a persistent labour shortage in agriculture. According to Statistic Canada, 92.6% of all agricultural jobs in the crop sub-sector were filled by temporary foreign workers in 2015.
The crop production sub-sector comprises jobs at farms, orchards, groves, greenhouses, and nurseries, primarily engaged in growing crops, plants, vines, or trees and their seeds. Slightly over half of TFWs are from Mexico.
Labour shortages within Canada’s agriculture sector have doubled over the past decade and are expected to double again by 2025. – The Conference Board of Canada
A 2016 Report from The Conference Board of Canada highlighted that the labour gap has doubled over the past decade (2006 to 2016), rising to 59,200 people in 2014, and is expected to double again in the next 10 years. Challenges are linked to an aging local workforce, the rural location of many operations, and negative perceptions about working in the sector.
In the context of the current pandemic, tighter borders and extended travel ban directives from authorities could exacerbate the labour shortage. The strain on small and medium farming businesses in Canada could be substantial, especially with a second wave.
Interviewed by CBC, Steve Bamford, president of the Toronto Wholesale Produce Association, said “If our borders are closed for a short period of time, even to the migrant workers, there will be trouble getting the crops in for the season.”
The Toronto Star reporter Joanna Chiu qualified the situation “a mess” on Twitter. Saying that “Farmers were first relieved to hear that foreign workers will be able to come to Canada after all despite COVID-19 travel ban, then shocked when some learned this was likely a misunderstanding.”
Imported Fruits and Vegetables
As mentioned by export.gov, an aging Canadian population with health concerns, in combination with a general increased interest in healthy eating, has contributed to a growing demand for products perceived as being healthy. This implies that import volume is poised to grow in the coming decade, unless Canadian farmers increase their production to match demand, which is unlikely.
On a March 18, 2020 news coverage, B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association general manager Glen Lucas told the Toronto Star that “while farmers understand the need to fight COVID-19 transmission, a potential food shortage could become an even bigger problem in Canada.”
Canada’s current food system pain points, added to the COVID-19 pandemic, is holding consumers hostage. They will most likely end up paying the bill sooner or later.
Nonetheless, crises are known to fuel innovations. When struggling, they force us to address problems that we tend to ignore or delay addressing in normal times. In a few words: crisis brings changes. Therefore, we may see several projects hatched in the coming months.
It already started well before the arrival of the coronavirus. As an example, In.Genius Farms demonstrated that growing food vertically optimizes yields and revenue per square footage. It drastically reduces the workload without compromising quality, variety or profitability. Operating on less than an acre in a peri-urban setting makes it also easier to connect, sell and deliver directly to clients. Given the public health directives on social distancing, such a model could be a relevant alternative for small scale productions as it is easy to deploy, requires minimal manipulation, transportation and interaction.
Farmers’ Markets vs E-commerce
Not so long ago, selling and buying food online was a silly concept for most Canadian farmers. COVID-19 is changing everything. Farmers have two main channels for products to reach a market: wholesalers and farmers’ markets. With directives such as social distancing, crowded farmers’ markets will be harder to manage, while for many people it will be a no-go. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that COVID-19 concerns will boost e-commerce for fresh food throughout 2020 and beyond.
In December 2019, Sarah Joyce, Sobeys’ senior vice-president of e-commerce, said in an interview for MacLean’s that “Food e-commerce is still immature in Canada […] because Canadians haven’t yet experienced something that is truly compelling enough to make them give it a try.” Given the pandemic context, getting your food online through limited interactions becomes very compelling.
The situation already developed a significant increase of online grocery shopping. This fairly new behaviour in Canada will most likely become the new normal. It has grown the consumers’ desires for the convenience of shopping from home. Hence, farmers’ markets may experience a similar path as retailers who did not take the e-commerce shift seriously; they are closing down one after the other.
Integrated Farm-to-Table Same-Day Services
In association with In.Genius Farms and Wizard Greens RakeAround is currently developing an Integrated farm-to-table same-day service.
The objective is to rethink the food supply chain at the hyperlocal level by merging e-commerce and data analytics with innovative urban farming methods, to make food closer, fresher, and faster. By design, the proposed model is highly efficient per sq.-ft., low work-intensive, and cost-effective. It enables a pricing strategy that nobody would think possible. Moreover, operations can be conducted with minimal manipulation, transportation, and interaction.
Products will be harvested, made available to buy online, and delivered to your doorstep the same day. Online shopping and conversion rate data should help foster better product offers and user experience. We believe these are the first steps toward a closed-loop local supply chain for fresh produce.
This is not meant to replace the current agriculture system, but to mitigate some of the pain points in the sector, while supplying customers with fresh produce in the most convenient way and limiting interactions.This project took shape through the Invest Ottawa pre-accelerator program. Sign up to our newsletter to follow our development.