The cherries on Sukhdeep Brar’s 100-acre orchard in Summerland, B.C., are just a few weeks out from ripening. But if he doesn’t manage to find the workers to pick them, they will spoil.
“Everything will go bad, real fast,” said Brar, a 34-year-old, second-generation tree fruit farmer.
Like many growers in the Okanagan Valley, he is desperately searching for pickers. There are fewer available this year because of COVID-19. Some are afraid to travel and others are unable to get to B.C. because of border closures.
“Usually at this point, I have 80 to 90 people call and ask when cherry picking is starting. I think I’ve had four people call,” said Brar. He is now looking to attract locals for the job.
“We are advertising it as make some money in the morning and hit the beach in the afternoons.”
According to the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association, 4,500 migrant labourers are needed every year to work Okanagan fields and orchards.
Annually, many farm workers head up from Mexico and the Caribbean. While they’re currently permitted to come into Canada during the pandemic as they are deemed an essential service, the logistics are challenging.
Roughly 1,500 young backpackers from Quebec also make the annual journey, but fewer have come this year. And some 1,500 backpackers from elsewhere come on travel visas; they will not be able to make it at all.
The Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen estimates that there are 50 per cent fewer farm workers this year overall compared to last year.
Jonathan Desy made the trip from Quebec for his eighth season of cherry picking, but said fewer of his friends made the journey.
“This year there is nobody. Maybe because of COVID or something like that,” he said.
It’s long been a tradition for students and young people from Quebec to travel across the country and come to B.C. to work the summer months as fruit pickers. The piecework allows them to make good money — if they’re skilled at it.
Some experienced pickers say they can make up to $2,000 a week, although most people can expect to earn much less. They go to work before the crack of dawn and are usually done by 11 a.m., giving them the chance to enjoy the summer on the lake.
Too much rain
“It’s really a bad season with the COVID and everything,” said cherry picker Eloïse Dendreon. “It’s hard for farmers and for us, it’s hard because the cherry is not good.”
It has been a light crop, and above-average rainfall has severely impacted the fragile fruit this season. Farmers have had to spend thousand of dollars to hire helicopters to dry the cherry trees in hopes of saving them from going bad.
“Every time it rains and the sun comes out, the cherries split. It causes damage,” said Harman Bahniwal of Krazy Cherry Fruit Company in Oliver, B.C.
He said the cherries get what are called “nose cracks” and are no longer deemed good enough for market.
“Any speck of rain, they explode, and all that cherry goes to waste,” said Bahniwal, which is why it’s so important to have the labour lined up for those few days when the cherries are ready to pick.
B.C.’s interior tree fruit industry generates $118 million in wholesale revenue and contributes $776 million in economic activity, according to the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association.
The association says the majority of farmers are seeing reduced fruit production and are worried as prices have been depressed for a number of years. It says COVID-19 is only adding more uncertainty and increased costs.
Some orchards have built campsites for workers and have increased washroom access and general sanitation to keep the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 from spreading between workers.
But in some cases the backpackers camp on Crown land, which can be difficult to monitor — and it lacks facilities like washrooms and showers.
The B.C. government announced on June 25 that it will provide funding for districts to build and maintain campsites to keep fruit pickers safe.
In Oliver, B.C., the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen manages a campsite called Loose Bay. It has been given $60,000 to manage safety precautions. Upon entry, all visitors fill out a COVID-19 questionnaire, and the site is overseen by bilingual campground managers.
“We ensure social distancing, including tents, and there are no campfires allowed this year, as they tend to lead to gatherings,” said district chair Karla Kozakevich.
She said they’ve also added more washrooms and hand sanitization stations at the campsite.
Additionally, the B.C. government has created a mandatory online course in agriculture safety, as it relates to COVID-19, for workers and producers.
There have been worries from some local residents over farm workers coming into the area, especially from Quebec, where coronavirus infection rates are much higher.
So far, there have been no positive cases of COVID-19 among the fruit pickers.
“We welcome them but want them to follow the health steps required, to be respectful in communities they are working — and I have found that they are,” said Kozakevich.