orchard people

From left, B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association general manager Glen Lucas, Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran and BCFGA president and Oliver orchardist Pinder Dhaliwal were among those attending the opening day of the association’s annual general meeting Tuesday at the Coast Capri Hotel.

Foreign farm workers will be allowed into the Okanagan this spring, summer and fall, after all.

Earlier this week it looked like Okanagan orchardists wouldn't have the labour they need to tend and harvest cherries, peaches, apricots, nectarines, pears and apples as the federal government closed the border to foreigners amid the COVID-19 crisis.

However, on Wednesday, Federal Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair made an exception to allow foreign seasonal agricultural workers, temporary foreign workers, international students and foreign work visa holders to enter Canada.

They will all have to go into 14-day quarantine, just as any Canadian returning from an international destination is recommended to do.

“This is good news,” said Glen Lucas, general manager of the 500-member B.C. Fruit Growers' Association.

“Without foreign workers there would be a severe labour shortage. Orchardists were extremely concerned.”

The tree fruit industry in the Okanagan is an important one with $776 million a year economic impact.

Foreign workers are a big part of its success because they are willing to do the pruning, thinning and picking work that most Canadians don't want to do.

In all, about 4,000 foreign farm workers come to the Okanagan annually between April and October.

Generally, around 3,200 of them are from Mexico and 800 from the Caribbean, mostly Jamaica.

The exception for foreign workers doesn't mean it will be smooth sailing.

“With coronavirus concerns there's the question of whether or not as many foreign workers will want to come to Canada,” said Lucas.

“Any worker will have to abide by the two-week isolation upon arrival. That will likely have to be done on the orchard they are going to work at. They will also likely have to go into some sort of quarantine when they return to Mexico or Jamaica.”

The logistics of travel to and from Canada also have to be worked out yet.

Charter flights will have to be arranged to bring foreign farm workers in because commercial flight options are limited with Canada's COVID-prompted travel bans.

Orchardists generally pay foreign workers minimum wage or more, provide subsidized housing and pay for flights to and from the Okanagan.

While the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program covers farm workers, the more encompassing Temporary Foreign Worker Program includes construction and hospitality workers and nannies.

The lobby for the foreigner farm workers exemption was spearheaded by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, Canada Horticultural Council, B.C. Agriculture Council and Western Agricultural Labour Initiative, all groups the B.C. Fruit Growers' Association is a member of.