Blueberries left to compost as COVID-19 hits B.C. agriculture sector

This fall on farms throughout the Fraser Valley, heaps of blueberry compost will tower as lasting monuments to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With fewer workers available and outbreaks shutting the province’s farms and processing plants — including one announced at an Abbotsford packing plant Monday — up to half of this year’s blueberry harvest could be lost.

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Those losses reflect issues challenging the province’s ability to feed itself. B.C’s agricultural sector is maladapted to meeting local demand and, without reform, will continue to have labour shortages and food waste, said Lenore Newman, Canada Research Chair in Food Security and the Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley.

“A lot of the labour is from temporary foreign workers, and they can’t get it… They’re getting sick, and processing capacity is never quite high enough (even without a pandemic).”

Fewer temporary agricultural workers were able to come to the province this year than normal, leading to a 50 per cent reduction in the available workforce. That means fewer workers in all aspects of the harvest, from picking to packing.

The problem is particularly acute in the province’s $243-million blueberry industry, with the majority of the crop exported because there are far more blueberries than local demand.

“Even without a pandemic, we have trouble getting (the blueberries) in,” said Newman.

B.C. farmers harvested 147 million pounds of blueberries in 2018. But that number is only part of all the berries grown in the province.

On average, more than 20 per cent of the crop is composted because there aren’t enough people to harvest and process it. COVID-19 has reduced the workforce by about 50 per cent, without counting the impact of outbreaks at processing plants and farms, Newman said.

“This year, it could be over half (the crop that’s composted).”

An outbreak declared Monday at Fraser Valley Packing Ltd., an Abbotsford blueberry processing plant, is an example.

According to the company website, it gathers blueberries from several company-owned farms in the Lower Mainland, then packs them to be sold fresh or frozen to international food conglomerates like Dole and Driscoll’s Berries. More than 10 million pounds of fresh berries — and millions more of frozen berries — pass through the facility annually.

COVID-19 mitigation measures — physical distancing, face masks and shields, and mandatory gloves — were implemented at the facility before the season started, Joe Gill, the company’s president, said in a written statement. They weren’t sufficient.

Sixteen workers at the plant have tested positive for the virus and the company has suspended its fresh packing operations temporarily.

Blueberries are delicate and need to be chilled, packed, and shipped soon after harvest if they are sold fresh. That means the majority of the berries that should have been flowing through the plant will be composted, Newman explained.

It’s a situation she thinks needs to be remedied by overhauling the way food — including blueberries — is grown in the province.

Newman would like to see land use policies that encourage farmers to build more greenhouses. That would allow them to grow a larger variety of crops for the B.C. market instead of focusing on the kind of seasonal boom-and-bust cycle seen in blueberries.

It would also provide year-round employment for agricultural workers, breaking a pattern of “agricultural colonialism,” she said.

B.C. expected between 3,000 and 4,000 temporary foreign workers to arrive from Mexico, Guatemala, and Jamaica to work on farms in the province through Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program up to six months.

These workers are not granted a clear path to citizenship and, until B.C. temporarily modified its policies in March due to COVID-19, were not eligible for provincial health care. Those changes are due to expire July 31.

They’re concerns echoed by Byron Cruz, an outreach activist with temporary foreign worker support organization Sanctuary Health.

He is a point person for many workers — his phone number is informally known as the temporary workers’ 911 — and regularly helps them access health care, food, and other necessities.

Adequate housing is a constant problem, he explained. Workers often live in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions: shared sleeping quarters, kitchens, and washrooms.

The problem isn’t new, Cruz said. Workers have complained of cramped, unsanitary living conditions on some B.C. farms for years. But the pandemic has given the situation a new urgency.

Some B.C. farms have also prohibited workers from leaving the property or interacting with visitors during the pandemic, making it difficult for them to access food.

He expects to see more outbreaks in the province’s agricultural sector.

“This is the first stage, and in the first stage I think we were successful,” Cruz said.

Unlike Ontario and Quebec, B.C. implemented a policy to quarantine all temporary workers for 14 days in hotels when they arrived, free of charge. It has been credited with the province’s comparatively few outbreaks in the agricultural sector.

Still, Cruz expects there will be an uptick in agricultural outbreaks originating from community transmission within the province.

“I was not (as) afraid as I am afraid right now. The outbreaks are going to be more often. Workers are in poor conditions of housing, but you also have more visitors… (they’re) much more exposed now than ever.”

The Ministry of Agriculture said in a statement that facilities should be operating a bit differently to ensure health and safety measures are in place. Employers are also required to have a COVID-19 safety plan that implements measures to keep workers safe.

Fraser Valley Packers Ltd. did not respond by deadline to clarify if any of its staff are temporary foreign workers, or provide details about employees’ living arrangements.

Newman also isn’t surprised by a new outbreak in the agricultural sector, citing people working in close quarters, often indoors.

“It’s a sector that’s vulnerable,” said Newman.

COVID-19 has simply made those vulnerabilities more clear, she explained, and we should pay attention.

“COVID is a dress rehearsal for climate change.”

© Copyright Yorkton This Week

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