Farm labour shortage bleak

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With a growing gap between the number of people willing to work on the farm and the need for workers, Canada’s reliance on foreign workers is set to soar, a national think-tank predicts.

In a new report, the Conference Board of Canada said there already is a gap of 59,200 workers, double what it was a decade ago.

That shortage is expected to double again during the next 10 years with a gap of 113,800 positions by 2025.

Report co-author Michael Burt, director of industrial economic trends at the Conference Board, said the two main areas hit with shortages are Southwestern Ontario and the horticultural areas of British Columbia.

If it wasn’t for temporary foreign workers, it is likely a significant portion of Canadian farm land would go unplanted, the report said.

“That would be a tragedy in a world where about 800 million people are food-insecure,” the Conference Board authors said.

The report released this month found temporary foreign workers fill one in 10 jobs in the sector, up from one in 20 a decade ago.

Burt said there are several reasons for the agriculture sector labour shortages, even at a time when people are unemployed.

Often available work is in rural areas not easily accessed by unemployed people in urban centres.

In addition, much agricultural work is seasonal with demand for workers soaring by about 100,000 and then plunging.

Then, there is an image problem, with many people believing farm work is too physical with long hours.

Two solutions often proposed — increasing the use of technology to replace labour and paying workers more — won’t solve the shortages, the report said.

The number of Canadians willing to work in the sector has shrunk, even as wages have risen.

At the same time, a dramatic increase in the machinery employed per worker has contributed to agriculture experiencing the strongest labour productivity gains of any major sector during the past 20 years, but there are limits to which jobs can be mechanized.

Given the prospect for continuing shortages, the Conference Board suggests Canada re-evaluate the effectiveness of immigration programs so they better meet the needs of agriculture.

The board also suggests overhauling the temporary foreign worker program, including easing the rules for entry visas and allowing permanent residency for migrant workers who are filling a permanent labour market need.