COVID-19 and Apple Growing
April 30, 2021
How one Ontario orchard is dealing with the pandemic
COVID-19 has changed life across Canada and around the world. In the first year of the pandemic, Canadian media frequently turned the spotlight on farmers and farm workers in their coverage of the global crisis.
Farmers too went public with their efforts to keep workers safe, the vital role that temporary foreign workers play in our food system, and how they’ve appreciated the support of consumers who’ve turned to buying local more than ever before.
Rebecca Bakos and her husband Chris Hedges are apples growers in Norfolk County. They have 275 acres of orchards, where they grow 14 different apple varieties. The majority of their apple crop is Honeycrisp, Gala and Ambrosia - three of the most popular and widely grown varieties in Ontario. Most of their apples are marketed through an apple packer, who brings them to retail store shelves across Ontario.
They hire between 30 and 40 people every year on their farm; a few are local, but the majority come from Jamaica through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP).
Like so many Ontario apple growers, 2020 was a year like no other for Becky and Chris. Luckily, most of their workers had already arrived for the season by the time the federal travel restrictions came into place; two groups that arrived for harvest in August completed their two week quarantine periods at a local hotel before coming to the farm to start working.
“From the end of March through to September, our workers made the decision to remain on the farm and did not go to town, and we limited farm access to individuals from outside the farm operation,” explains Becky. “I did all the shopping for our farm workers, including groceries, personal care items, clothing, and electronic supplies.”
That was only one of the measures implemented on the farm to keep workers safe. All employees completed a daily symptom questionnaire, the number of people allowed in each farm vehicle was limited and everyone had to wear masks. Equipment was assigned to specific employees to limit the potential for cross contamination or was cleaned between users.
A year into the pandemic, those on-farm measures remain in place, and although workers are once again arriving at their farm it’s been a tougher start to the season this year, notes Becky.
It’s been an early spring so far, which means critical work to get the orchard in shape for the season needs to be completed earlier than in other years. One such job is pruning, which encourages fruit production – if it doesn’t get done, it impacts the number of apples each tree produces this year and in the following year.
At the same time, new testing procedures for incoming workers combined with additional rules around transportation imposed by their local health unit has complicated the arrival process, and so far, not all of the workers they’ve expected so far have actually made it to Canada.
How the rest of the season will unfold is a story yet to be told, but as they have since the beginning of the pandemic, Ontario apple growers and agricultural workers will continue to adapt to the ever-changing reality of COVID-19, including all guidance and rules requested by public health authorities in order to continue growing safe, healthy food for Ontarians.
Thank you for supporting our farmers, our workers and our communities by buying local!