Migrant Workers Help Make Local Harvests Happen



Photo Karen Graham.
Julie of Circle Organic woth the fulltime staff that keeps it going, including Jose, Roberto, Jesse, and Felipe.

Perusing the farmers’ markets comes with the satisfaction of knowing the produce is fresh, grown to exacting health standards and supports the local economy. But that’s not the whole story. Many local market garden and orchard operations rely on seasonal foreign workers to get their produce in the ground, nurtured to maturity and harvested at their peak. It’s hard work and not everyone can cut it.

We associate foreign workers with the southern US or the Niagara peninsula where food production is concentrated, but more local farms in Orono, Bowmanville and Beaverton are relying on migrant workers to keep their farms productive.

Closer to home, Circle Organic just south of Millbrook relies on foreign workers to grow their community-based family farm that produces a wide range of vegetables, fruits and herbs for sale in local markets and through their Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) program. In addition to a local full-time staff member, they currently have three temporary foreign workers on staff.

Seasonal agricultural employees working in Ontario arrive in May primarily from Mexico and the Caribbean and usually remain here for six or seven months. Most of them live in free, government approved barracks on farms during their stay. Inexpensive technology now allows them regular communication with their families back home.

This is Roberto’s 5th year at Circle Organic. He comes from the Michoacan province outside Mexico City, and has three children aged four to thirteen. He is grateful for the opportunity to work in Canada which allows him to provide a better life for his family.   Foreign work is more difficult to secure since the US border closed to migrant workers, and he considers himself lucky to work in Canada at a farm where no dangerous chemicals are involved in production.

Occasionally concern is raised that these foreign workers are taking jobs away from Canadians, but nothing could be further from the truth, according to Julie of Circle Organic’s Julie. Migrant workers flow into the country through the federal Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program which allows employers to hire temporary foreign workers in agricultural production when Canadians are not available, and there are many hoops to clear to prove that no local workers are willing and able to take these jobs.

Julie credits these workers with allowing Circle Organic’s niche business to grow and prosper. She argues that rather than take jobs away from locals, by keeping the business going these workers create part time work for students and others who have less time to commit to the strenuous work that is required.

Migrant workers face loneliness and social isolation, which is something with which Peruvian-born Rev. Augusto Nunez of St. Saviour’s Anglican Church of Orono is familiar. He came to Canada as a boy and understands the isolation felt by seasonal workers and has developed a program to help them cope. Together with Rev. Canon Ted McCollum, he operates the Durham Region Migrant Workers Network which provides a unique comprehensive outreach to visiting field workers offering spiritual outreach in the form of worship in Spanish, psychological counselling, medical and dental care, safety and transportation. And then there is soccer. As a registered soccer coach, Nunez organizes pickup games on Wednesday evenings at a soccer field in Orono. On the soccer field, there are smiles all around and tired muscles suddenly feel ready for a new challenge.

Migrant workers are here to build a better life for their family and are helping our food production by taking on jobs most of us could not endure. When you meet them in town at the laundromat or convenience store, make them feel welcome. Like it or not, we are all part of the global economy and the work they do helps us all.

To learn more about Rev. Nunez’s outreach program, contact him at mailto:augusto.nunez783@gmail.com or visit the Durham Region Migrant Worker Ministry on Facebook. The group welcomes donations of bicycles, used suitcases and clothing. KG

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