Efforts to resolve the crisis of a labour shortage in the ag world keep government agencies busy.
Ahh… land spreadin’ out so far and wide, fresh air, a sense of community, and even a lower crime rate—all wonderful perks to living within the rural areas of Canada.
So why is it so tough to get people to work in the ag industry?
Finding enough good labour within the agri-business sector can be, well, labourious, and it has only become more challenging since the Covid pandemic reared its ugly head.
Whether it’s finding workers for the fields or qualified personnel for ag shops, or even individuals to construct the equipment needed to sell or utilize in the fields, farms, and ranches, there’s no denying it has been a tough haul lately.
Both Canada and the US have identified it as a major cause for concern and are seeking a way to resolve it—either by encouraging rural and remote community people to remain in the area or to offer those in more urban spots to seek the rewards—and challenges—and become involved in the farming sector.
In the early days of pioneer expansion across North America, the phrase “Go west, young man” was a common refrain. Lost in that, was the role women played in our travels westward.
In the days following WWI aka The Great War, a very popular hit song dominated the two countries in a reverse commentary—How Ya Gonna Keep’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)? The song’s lyrics denote the huge concern within the ag sector of soldiers not wanting to return to their family farms after seeing the still-exciting city of Paris during and after the war. Nothing against Paris, Ontario, but in this case, it was about the European capital.
The exodus continued throughout the 20th century with the belief that city life offered the younger generation better education and job opportunities, with them leaving the farm life to become anything else but a farmer. It was based on the belief—whether right or wrong—that farm-living is a tough life with few guarantees of success or reward.
Skipping ahead, many young people have returned to their farming roots after partaking in higher-level “book” education that, combined with what they had already learned on-farm, set them up to be better leaders within the sector.
Along with the education, they brought with them an enthusiasm to utilize newer technologies and equipment that would have had their forefathers shaking their collective heads in disbelief. For a while, the North American farm story progressed as smoothly as it could given the usual fallout of too much rain, too little rain, death and taxes, infestation, chemical bans, politics—you name it, it happened.
As of February of 2020, the world became more aware of Covid-19 (so numerically named because it was first “discovered” in December of 2019). After much hemming and hawing, global economies were essentially shut down as traffic between nations was halted or at least severely curtailed.
While many traveling field workers were either not allowed to travel to other countries, and not supposed to travel between neighbouring farms, and even many who chose not to travel at all, there was a paralyzing need for more farm labour.
In the urban environs, with governments providing financial remuneration for those unable to work, even when the travel restrictions were lifted, or when Covid went into a season remission after many opted for a vaccination, many people opted not to return to work.
And it was every sector of mid- to low-level employment. Higher-income people were more reluctant to give up employment—same bills, but higher expenses that could not be recovered by government financial aid programs.
There are jobs available in Canada, but sometimes it’s the distance to travel to work that dissuades finding employment.
We are all aware that agri-businesses are having a difficult time attracting farm workers, but it also affects downstream food production.
Chapman’s Ice Cream is located within the town of Markdale, Ontario, relying on vast quantities of fresh local-area milk for the production of its frozen treats.
Ashley Chapman, the Chief Operating Officer of the company had, on multiple occasions, previously related to this writer that his company has long had a difficult time hiring enough workers at its facility.
One would already be hard-put to find someone in the Markdale and surrounding areas not already working for the company. A need to find workers from afar to come and work has knee-capped the ice cream et al processor’s ability to increase production of its popular line-up.
Building a Stronger Canadian Workforce
Aware of the Canadian agri-business sector’s need for a stronger and more competitive workforce, the governments of Canada and Ontario are investing $4 million into the Ontario Agri-Careers Support Initiative, which will itself provide funding for innovative pilot projects that are tailor-made to address employee needs at a local level.
In other words—we’re not sure what to do, but we have money available if someone else has a good idea. But at least there’s effort.
“By working together through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, we’re ensuring Ontario has a skilled workforce to support its crucial food processing sector,” stated Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. “This investment in Agri-Careers helps Ontario’s food processors meet growing labour challenges while remaining competitive here and around the world.”
For those food processing businesses with 50+ employees, they can apply for funding up to $80,000. Or if they collaborate with two or more businesses, up to $200,000 could be accessed to cover up to 70 percent of eligible project costs.
The point of all this is to help the sector attract, support, and retain the needed workers to continue producing safe and high-quality foods in the province while strengthening the local supply chain and promoting greater food security.
“Our government recognizes that we need to continue making strategic investments that position Ontario’s agri-food sector for success both now and in the future,” Minister Lisa Thompson, for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) explained. “The innovative projects we are supporting through this program will make it easier for people to take advantage of meaningful and increasingly high-tech career opportunities available in food processing.”
Examples of pilot projects that could be eligible for funding include:
- transportation initiatives for employees to commute to the job site;
- childcare options for working parents;
- language proficiency solutions for workers with English as a second language;
- improving workspace environments.
“We need all hands on deck to tackle the historic labour shortage in Ontario, so that shelves are stocked, and families have food on their table,” said Monte McNaughton, Ontario Minister of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development. “That’s why our government is supporting the Ontario Agri-Careers Support Initiative, which will prepare job seekers for exciting careers in agri-food and spread opportunity to every corner of our province.”
The Ontario Agri-Careers Support combined with the $22 million Agri-Tech Innovation cost-share program launched in April 2021, is an attempt to enhance the province’s agri-food labour support to build a competitive and skilled agri-food workforce.
“As the province’s largest manufacturing sector by employment, programs like the Ontario Agri-Careers Support Initiative are vital to supporting the important work of the food and beverage processing sector,” summed up Chris Conway, Chief Executive Officer of Food and Beverage Ontario.
The American Challenge
The Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) is a North America-based international trade group that represents off-road equipment manufacturers and suppliers with more than 1,000 companies, and more than 200 product lines in the agriculture and construction-related industry sectors worldwide.
It, too, has noticed the brain-drain of labour from its smaller communities—and not just rural areas—but also points to a lack of broadband internet as stifling these areas to utilize newer and stronger technologies.
For example, if a person from Smalltown, USA, wanted to create a business around a precision ag app, would they set up a business in their town with sporadic broadband internet services or move to an environment where service is consistent? You go where your business can thrive.
Limited educational advancement opportunities were also cited, but aside from someone unable to afford the cost of such education, which can happen regardless of location, students seeking more than what a local college may have to offer will have to move elsewhere.
The writer is not knocking community college—he has a university degree in political science and a community college degree in journalism. He knows which one is more valuable.
The AEM also noted that rural workforces can often lack diversity, and the challenge of community resources can also play a role, such as transportation, childcare, health care, and housing. Certainly, every community is different—some are better equipped than others to support a rural and effective workforce.
In 2017, the Investing in America’s Workforce initiative tried to determine workforce challenges and opportunities, with rural issues included. It followed up by devising strategies to build stronger rural economies.
In 2019, the Strengthening Workforce Development in Rural Areas report by Ashley Bozarth and Whitney Strifler was published by the US Federal Reserve. It found:
- One out of every four businesses located outside metro areas struggles to find qualified workers, compared with one out of six in metro areas.
- Adults 65 and older average 25 percent of rural populations, versus 19 percent in metro areas.
- White, non-Hispanic adults age 16 and older make up about 82 percent of the population in non-metro areas, compared to 60 percent in metro areas.
- The vast majority of US counties with consistent poverty—where over 20 percent of the population has been living in poverty for over the past 30 years—are located in non-metro areas.
- Forty percent of non-metro renter households and 21 percent of non-metro owner occupants spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs.
- 58 percent of rural census tracts in the US have limited or no access to quality childcare.
- In rural areas, the overdose (of over-the-counter and prescription drugs) rate exceeded metropolitan rates in 2015.
- Rural residents comprise 57 percent of the population in neighbourhoods with no broadband access, but only 15 percent of the country’s total population.
Within the US, companies—not just agri-biz companies—are being asked to consider beyond their own needs, and to connect and invest in the communities in which they reside and do business.
A report suggested that companies tackle rural workforce development with a quasi-public good approach.
It requires rural businesses to have a willingness to collaborate with key community stakeholders in a way that encompasses five broadly categorized best practices (see below) that are community-focused and require a long-term mindset.
Five Rural Workshop Strategies
From the US-created Strengthening Workforce Development in Rural Areas report, there are five strategies policymakers can learn from to move forward with to resolve Canadian labour struggles. The report stated:
1. Connect youth and adult workers with education and training programs that relate directly to existing and burgeoning industry sectors.
The rural area educational programs already in place and forthcoming must match the skill and labour requirements of the community in which it serves.
Not all communities are built the same. Regardless if one is in cattle country, fruit, vegetable, or grain, these educational programs must provide a specific career pathway from school to full-time employment.
The programs must be available to youth and adult learners.
Funding for these educational programs should be supported through public and private agencies—not just through money, but through standing partnerships.
2. Support economic diversification initiatives that increase economic resiliency.
Many rural communities have one or two anchor businesses that drive the local economy—such as Chapman’s Ice Cream in Markdale. As noted, it is having a difficult time expanding its business because it can not find the workers it wants—Chapman said they are willing to train.
Although Chapman’s is not in danger of shuttering its facility, other key industries in other areas are unable to find enough local-area labour. If they were forced to close, the impact on the local community would be devastating. Ghost town, anyone?
Although easier said than done, the report suggested that diversification of business size and type would help stabilize the impact of potential losses. While it seems flippant, increasing diversity also allows for the attraction of workers along the entire skill spectrum.
The report said that it is important to understand this dynamic while contributing to a collaborative effort is a sensible course of action.
3. Create community amenities that improve the quality of life to attract and retain workers.
The report said that rural employers face a duality when recruiting and retaining employees: the challenge of disproportionate rural poverty and reduced educational access, and the opportunity to entice additional workers who are looking to experience abundant natural resources or a community experience that differs from urban areas.
With evidence to back this up, it appears as though the “reduced educational access” is only about reduced “further” educational access for ag workers, and college or universities being far away.
The reports noted that these challenges and opportunities provide rural employers the ability to leverage benefits beyond wages while building their workforce. It allows them to show prospective candidates the unique benefits of their area: lots of sporting facilities or a large grocery store or even proximity to a larger city or highways.
And, since Canada is currently working on it, if currently available, employers can educate a would-be worker on how an area has access to high-speed broadband internet service.
4. Support community development efforts focused on reducing common rural barriers including transportation, housing, childcare, health care, and broadband.
As noted in No. 3, the work-life balance of amenities and proximity to work is important.
This is part of a business investing in a community. We all know about Canadian, US, and UK industries in the past building housing—often poor, barely adequate housing—for its workers in the mining or textile industries.
Or, if you believe in the existence of Area-51, the black ops site does ferry workers from Las Vegas in and out at the end of the workday by plane.
Issues such as housing, transportation, childcare services, and other amenities can not be taken for granted.
Businesses must determine if it is better to invest in solutions or suffer production loss or growth opportunities. Should Chapman’s Ice Cream, for example, invest in lodging for a larger potential workforce? While creating housing for workers traveling from abroad to work on Canadian farms has long been a solution, can it be improved upon or expanded for other aspects of the ag industry?
While both the US and Canada are working to improve quality broadband internet coverage, it can be a deal breaker for industries looking for quality labour. We would be remiss if we did not point out that a lack of quality high-speed internet service also prevents farmers from purchasing precision ag equipment. This not only can affect the way farmers farm, but it also affects the bottom line of both agri-business that sell and maintain such technologies, and also the OEM (original equipment manufacturer).
The broadband issue is not the domain of the agri-businesses, but it does behoove them to become more involved to ensure their interests are looked after quickly with better service. Do you know why some areas are receiving government monies and a push from a telecom provider, and others are not?
You should know because it can play a role in workforce recruitment and retention. Even if the agri-business in question is not directly affected by high-speed broadband internet service, their workers may have family members who require it for work, school, or just home entertainment purposes.
If one or more members of a workforce family are unhappy, your worker may be forced to consider a new employer.
5. Collaborate across the public, nonprofit, and private sectors to align workforce development, economic development, and community development goals.
The “it’s not us, it’s them” ideology will only get you so far. Teamwork is required, as well as an understanding that different entities may have interests that do not specifically align with your own.
If there was a single one-size-fits-all solution, it would have been employed already.
Rural communities, businesses, and economies need to work together to face and overcome the unique challenges.
We need a workforce for our agri-business sector. In some cases, the workforce may be transitory as they move from farm to farm. In other cases, it’s permanent.
A good place to start is with high school students and technical schools. This can be done via government—federal, provincial, and municipal—as well as through agencies, and personally by the business. Maybe even through social media influencers.
While many high school students are keen to go to college or university—they often have no idea what they want to do with their life. Here, we are talking about those in more urban environs, the students who one day want to be a paleologist, and the next a mechanic in a garage.
It may be one of those options, it may be something else. It’s up to the ag sector to show them the benefits of agriculture in Canada.
We need to get in the minds of the future workforce, in other words, when they are young. We just need to determine the best course of action to do that, to promote the industry as an exciting and viable career option for the next generation.
If we can do that, it remains up to the industry to ensure they stay. It should be done via a home-work life balance, through pay, benefits, the community, and training to learn additional aspects within ag. There needs to be growth available to them.
It is also important for agri-businesses to work with educational program operators, and local community governments, and to ensure that the workers also have a voice.
We need to create the concept that your agri-business is the job that satisfies them the most. It’s about recruitment and retention, and we need it now.
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