Labour shortages cause concern for Saskatchewan agricultural employers

April 12, 2021, 4:00 pm
Spencer Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

AgriLMI Manager with CAHRC, Debra Hauer says that Canadian farmers lost $2.9 billion due to labour shortages brought on by COVID-19.

Through the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian farmers lost around $2.9 billion due to labour shortages.

With the research done by the Canadian Agriculture Human Resource Council (CAHRC), it was found that Canadian farmers suffered a loss equivalent to 4.2 per cent of the sector’s total sales due to labour shortages brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Debra Hauer, AgriLMI Manager with CAHRC, says they conducted a survey that received just over 450 responses from Canadian farmers.

“We conducted a survey of farm-business owners in Canada from the middle of November until early January and we received 453 responses from farm employers. These are the farmers who have employees, both foreign and Canadian. We asked them a number of questions about the impacts of COVID on their labour force, then we supplemented that information with a series of interviews with key opinion leaders across the country in different types of agriculture to get a little bit more information,” Hauer said.

“We had grain producers, beef producers, and even beekeepers respond to the survey. The vacancy rates for Canadians in Saskatchewan were higher than the average in Canada at about a nine per cent vacancy rate for Canadian farmers on farms. We asked about the impacts of labour shortages and 100 per cent of Saskatchewan farmers said they were exhibiting stress from the labour shortages. We asked about lost sales and revenue and that was actually lower in Saskatchewan than across Canada as a whole, however, Saskatchewan farmers were much more likely to say they delayed or cancelled expansion plans. What happened during this pandemic will impact the future.”

Hauer explained that the shortages came from increased border and travel restrictions.

“What caused the loss as a whole is that they were unable to find enough people to work on their farms. So those people who had temporary foreign workers were not able to get the workers they needed coming from outside of the country. When we think of temporary foreign workers we think of people who come from Mexico or the Caribbean countries to work in horticulture farms in Ontario, Quebec, and B.C. But also in Saskatchewan, for example, there are people who come from the southern hemisphere like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa as well as Eastern Europe to work on farms. But because of travel restrictions, people were not able to come, and even those who were able to come could not come on time.

“At the same time, farmers that couldn’t get people from other countries to work on farms, they looked more so towards Canadians to work on farms. However, of farmers who said they had labour shortages, 70 per cent said there were fewer Canadians applying. Part of that was because that this time last year people were told to stay home. They weren’t supposed to go anywhere or travel. People were concerned about outbreaks or had to do childcare. There were a variety of reasons that there were fewer Canadians who could work on farms.”

Hauer notes that while the agricultural sector saw success with exports through 2020, it should not take away from the impacts that labour shortages have on Canadian farmers.

“Agriculture outperformed the Canadian economy last year. So GDP increased by more than seven per cent compared to a decline across all sectors by more than five per cent, and that was lead by prep production. Animal production was fairly flat but prep production increased. Cannabis production also increased by around 30 per cent.

“The grain and oilseed production in Saskatchewan had a banner year last year. The value of agriculture exports went way up, driven by about a 30 per cent increase in grain and oilseed exports to China. So things went a little haywire in the trades last year. People in certain parts of agriculture did very well, and I think Saskatchewan is benefitting from a great year in agriculture. Other parts of agriculture did not do so well, things like animal production fared much worse. That had to do with holdups in meat processing plants that had to close down because of the pandemic which caused a strain on the entire supply chain for meat and products. There were big negative effects in horticulture as another example, so the effects of the pandemic varied from one sector to the next.”

While Saskatchewan utilizes the least amount of Temporary Foreign Workers (TFW), the beekeeping industry was hit hardest by the travel restrictions preventing the hiring of additional workers.

Canadian farm owners that employ both Canadian and TFWs were asked where the labour shortages impacted them the most through the pandemic.

One-hundred per cent of farm owners in Saskatchewan say they are dealing with excessive stress brought on by the labour shortages compared to the average of 90 per cent across Canada.

Production delays were also noted as an impact by 60 per cent of Saskatchewan farmers, compared to the 62 per cent average.

Only 40 per cent of Saskatchewan farm owners noted a loss of sales and revenue due to the labour shortages when compared to the Canadian average of 60 per cent.

Sixty per cent of farm owners in Saskatchewan have seen a delay or cancellation of investment or expansion due to the labour shortages when compared to the Canadian average of 41 per cent.

Saskatchewan farm owners also noted additional overtime costs with 40 per cent of farm owners reporting an increase. The Canadian average was 30 per cent.

Animal welfare issues were also noted by Saskatchewan farm owners with 40 per cent of owners noting impacts brought on by labour shortages. This exceeds the Canadian average of 10 per cent.

Saskatchewan agricultural employers were asked about their concerns through the next year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Seventy-four per cent of Saskatchewan employers expressed concern about dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak at their business, in line with the Canadian average of 73 per cent.

Sixty-eight per cent of Saskatchewan employers noted concern about changing costs of inputs, in line with the Canadian average of 66 per cent.

Inadequate staffing levels were a bigger concern for Saskatchewan employers with 63 per cent noting concern, well above the Canadian average of 48 per cent.

Fifty-eight per cent of Saskatchewan employers were uncertain about government support programs and resources compared to the Canadian average of 54 per cent.

Fifty-three per cent of Saskatchewan employers were concerned about temporary vacancies due to illness, family or childcare responsibilities, self-isolation after exposure, and quarantine after travel, slightly above the Canadian average of 41 per cent.

Fifty-three per cent of Saskatchewan employers expressed concern about transportation disruptions, up from the national average of 43 per cent.

Fifty-three per cent of Saskatchewan employers were uncertain about new rules and restrictions in Canada and TFW source countries, down slightly from the Canadian average of 54 per cent.

Fifty-three per cent of Saskatchewan employers are concerned about not having TFWs arrive on time, slightly above the Canadian average of 49 per cent.

And 53 per cent of both Canadian and Saskatchewan employers expressed concern about not being able to hire the necessary amount of workers.

Farm owners and employers were also asked which areas they need support with to help deal with the impact of COVID-19 over the next year.

Fifty per cent of Saskatchewan employers say they require help applying for and employing TFWs, compared to the Canadian average of 36 per cent.

Thirty-three per cent of Saskatchewan employers say they require help with access to financial support programs, this is above the Canadian average of 27 per cent.

Only six per cent of Saskatchewan employers asked for help finding and retaining Canadian workers, below the Canadian average of 15 per cent.

And six per cent of Saskatchewan employers are asking for help with COVID-19 protocol support, below the Canadian average of eight per cent.

Hauer says that labour shortages are something that has been around in Canada for a while and will continue to impact producers across the nation.

“Labour shortages have been around for a very long time and our research has indicated that those labour shortages are doubling every 10 years. Another issue is finding people who have the right skills. An example of that would be people on grain and oilseed farms that might be looking for someone who can drive a truck or combine during harvest, but not everybody has the skills to be able to do that. Machinery skills are also important, not everybody has that. As we become more technologically advanced in agriculture, people will have to know how to maintain and install software programs. So skill requirements are increasing in agriculture and that is a concern.”

She explains that while CAHRC is a research organization, they work with other organizations to communicate their research and any potential solutions to the issues.

“We do the research and we put it out there and other organizations can pick it up and come up with the solutions. However, we are involved with a sort of consortium of industry groups that are called the Labour Task Force that has about 40 representatives of 40 organizations around the country. They have been advocating for a while for the development of a national labour strategy for agriculture and also through food processing.

“The national labour strategy that they are pushing for would involve ensuring that there are enough people to work in food processing and agriculture.”