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A bumper crop of jobs: Eastern Ontario is open for business as labour shortages plague its agricultural sector

labour shortages in agri-food sector

Like many other sectors of the Canadian economy, agri-food is suffering from worsening labour shortages at several occupational levels. These shortages are severely crimping the sector’s current performance and future growth and the statistics are particularly ominous for Eastern Ontario because it has a higher proportion of agri-food workers compared with other parts of the province.

The December 2022 Labour Force Survey counts a Canadian agri-food labour force of 260,600 workers, down 37,200 or 12.5 per cent compared to pre-pandemic numbers (February 2020). In broad terms, the industry faces ongoing pressures from population aging and fewer older individuals returning to work in agriculture after the pandemic. This national sector’s chronic labour shortage is forecasted to grow from 63,000 to as many as 123,000 workers by 2029.

According to the latest estimates from the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC), Ontario agriculture is facing a projected shortfall of 47,300 of the 112,300 workers needed by 2029 due to the loss of 36 per cent of the workforce because of retirement.

“This will widen the labour gap even further and prevent the province’s vital agriculture sector from reaching its full potential,” the CAHRC states in its report on How Labour Challenges Will Shape the Future of Agriculture in Ontario.

jobs available in agri-food sector

In April 2021, a major response to these national systemic challenges was the launch of the National Workforce Strategic Plan for Agriculture and Food and Beverage Manufacturing, “a comprehensive roadmap” developed by the CAHRC, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and Food and Beverage Canada.

At the time, CAHRC  Executive Director Jennifer Wright stated: “While good work is being undertaken by many groups, industry also recognizes the gravity of the challenge, the need for new and different ways of doing things and, most importantly, the need for collaborative action.”

In response, in February this year the federal government announced more than $19.7 million in funding for two agriculture and agri-food projects under its Sectoral Workforce Solutions Program: just over $12 million for CAHRC for its growing the agricultural workforce as part of Canada’s post-pandemic recovery and $7.7 million to Food Processing Skills Canada for its project titled Workforce Destination: Qualified People, Successful Careers & Competitive Business.

In 2021, the CAHRC also commissioned a firm called Personnel Talent Inc. to prepare a sector action plan specifically for Ontario. The plan, based on 2018 data, identifies 97,800 jobs in primary agriculture (including 28,800 temporary foreign workers) in Ontario and more than  101,000 jobs in food and beverage processing.

Within the Ontario agri-food sector, Eastern Ontario ranks as a top-three regional producer in three commodity areas: grain/oilseeds, dairy and poultry/eggs. 

The remarkable fertility of Eastern Ontario’s soil and the flatness of its land is primarily due to the region’s being the bed of the former Atlantic Ocean inlet known as the Champlain Sea, an area that also includes southern Quebec and upper New York State.

Primarily due to this fertility, the largest volume and weight of “stuff” grown, raised, produced or processed in Eastern Ontario is human and animal food.

Grass, grains, vegetables, fruit, livestock, milk, cheese, eggs, wine, honey, garlic, wool, flowers, maple syrup are all farm products that are in great abundance in Eastern Ontario.

For statistical purposes, this region includes the six census divisions of Frontenac, Leeds-Grenville, Lanark, Renfrew, Prescott-Russell and Stormont, Dundas & Glengarry.

Overall, the Eastern Ontario region is still suffering from the closure in 2014 of the agricultural programs at two satellite University of Guelph campuses in Kemptville and Alfred respectively.

While the French-language programs from Alfred were in principle picked up by Collège La Cité in Ottawa, the Kemptville programs were not picked up by the region’s two Anglophone colleges: Ottawa-based Algonquin (with satellite campuses in Pembroke and Perth) and Kingston-based St. Lawrence College (with satellite campuses in Brockville and Cornwall). 

At the same time, the region’s three workforce planning boards — the Eastern Ontario Training Board (EOTB) based in Cornwall, the Eastern Workforce Innovation Board (EWIB) based in Ganonoque and the Labour Market Group of Renfrew and Lanark (LMGRL) based in Pembroke — are emerging as potentially even more important players in the agri-food workforce development ecosystem in Eastern Ontario, somewhat along the lines of the “collaborative” approach advocated by the CAHRC’s Jennifer Wright.

These three agencies, funded directly by annually renewable contracts with the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development not only foster collaboration among all labour force stakeholders in their respective territories, but also hold monthly virtual meetings to dovetail their efforts across the entire region.

One shared role they play is to produce annual labour market plans for their respective territories. Another common role is to propose short-term training courses to local post-secondary educational institutions to meet identified needs.

The EOTB, for example, collaborated with St. Lawrence College to develop a course to prepare students to work in controlled-environment farming, a booming subsector in the region with firms such as ZipGrow, Fieldless Farms, Canobi and Kyan Culture.

Another example is the two-year Business-Agriculture diploma offered by Algonquin College’s Perth campus.

All three boards — the EOTB, EWIB and LMGRL — also operate job search tools either via their websites or in the EOTB’s case, a standalone site:

At the same time, the evidence seems to show that due to other more priority sectors, agri-food is not yet a top priority for any of these boards in terms of either training courses or staff expertise. 

Going forward, Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Peggy Brekveld, who is also vice-chair of both the CAHRC and its provincial counterpart, the Agriculture Adaptation Council (AAC), says that national responses to these systemic challenges include research into challenges and possible answers; tools to ease the challenges of hiring and retaining staff; promotion of the industry as a place to work; efforts to reach out to diverse and underrepresented persons (including ethnic minorities, Indigenous, women and people with unique abilities); and workers to be sourced partly from a Canadian base partly from an international base.

Provincial responses through the AAC include eight innovative human resource solutions from the Ontario Agri-Careers Support Initiative; three practical industry solutions to the employment challenges in food and beverage processing; three ways food and beverage processors are developing skills training and membership; and a guide to help food and beverage processor employers understand the temporary foreign worker program.

A recent good news story in Cornwall is that of Fredy Ibanez, a former instructor from the national agricultural college in Colombia who has been in Canada for less than a year.

After initially working as a forklift operator for Matrix Logistics in Cornwall, Ibanez was recently hired as a grower by Cornwall-based ZipGrow, a major manufacturer of indoor vertical farms for the international market.

According to ZipGrow president Eric Lang, who grew up on a family dairy farm in nearby Williamstown, Ibanez has proven to be a good hire, partly thanks to a government worker subsidy program. 

Lang adds that the indirect hiring approach in Ibanez’s case is actually typical for his company because ZipGrow has so far not had much success with regular channels like advertising through Indeed and other online job search platforms.

Lang says that today’s generation of homegrown Canadians are not inherently attracted to the agri-food sector. This means that the sector is becoming increasingly dependent on either foreign workers or recent immigrants who still have a strong manual work ethic and roots that are closer to farm labour.

On that front, Lang is proud that approximately half of his current 18 or so employees are originally from outside Canada.

While he feels that this diversity is a huge plus for his own business, he has no magic solutions for the sector as a whole.

This article was written by Neil Macmillan, and originally appears in STUFF Magazine.