Norfolk County, Southern Ontario

Canada: Lack of workers forces Norfolk asparagus farmer to abandon 450 acres

The Scotlynn Group in Norfolk County said despite an overwhelming response from locals who came forward to replace over 200 migrant workers (who were side-tracked by the COVID-19 outbreak), nearly 450 acres of asparagus will not be harvested this year. That’s 12 per cent of all the asparagus grown in Ontario. The loss will be felt all over Canada, as Scotlynn is the exclusive supplier of asparagus to several major grocery chains.

“We weren’t able to salvage the crop with the locals,” said Scotlynn president and CEO Scott Biddle. “We tried. We went out fighting. It’s just unfortunate that we won’t be able to provide some of our customers with that product. They’ll have to source from Peru or Mexico.”

Bernie Solymar, executive director of the Asparagus Farmers of Ontario, hopes those customers will look a little closer to home. “I would sincerely hope that the retailers he supplied would go to other Ontario sources and that would be their first choice. I would think their customers would expect that as well.”

Despite some smaller growers abandoning their acreage due to labour shortages, Solymar said there is still plenty of Ontario asparagus available after the recent heat wave revived the frostbitten crop and sparked a mad scramble to harvest.

“We ended up getting a huge flush of asparagus. We went from an empty pipeline to a full pipeline in five days. Crews were out there working overtime,” he said.

But without the usual number of migrant workers in the fields, Solymar added, “there were hundreds of acres being mowed down.”

With his workforce in quarantine, Biddle offered Norfolk residents $25 per hour to pick asparagus in prearranged groups of five. People responded in droves, with some offering to forgo the inflated salary and work for free to salvage the nutritious spring crop. But on the first day of this makeshift harvest, it quickly became clear the plan wasn’t going to work. Not being trained on the machines used by migrant workers, the new farmhands walked the fields and tried harvesting by hand.

Compounding the problem, some of the fields had gone too long without being worked and could not be saved. Biddle said the fields will be mowed over and harvested next year when the perennial plant returns.


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