A glimpse at agricultural labour shortages in PEI

After meeting with Laurie Loane, executive director of the PEI Agriculture Sector Council, the take-home message was this: labour shortage in agriculture is a complex topic. Family farms without successors, increasing use of automated systems, erratic employment for labourers, and barriers for minority groups to enter the sector are a few of the issues one might unveil when looking at agricultural labour shortages on PEI.

The PEI Agriculture Sector Council is a nonprofit organization mandated to support employment needs within the agricultural sector of PEI. With approximately 50-250 jobs posted monthly (depending on the time of year) a visit to the job registry on the Council’s website reiterates the local demand for farm workers. According to Loane, who manages the program, 50 percent of successfully contacted individuals find employment with producers. The other 50 percent of the time, farmers look to systems like automation, temporary foreign workers, on call part-time employees, and sometimes swallowing the cost of being short handed among a plethora of other strategies, to fill the labour gap in their industry.

While maintenance and operational costs are expensive realities of owning machinery, many farmers able to absorb these costs prefer to have the peace of mind that comes with reliable, “steel muscle” like seeders, combines, harvesters, sprayers, etc., rather than trying to find and retain employees each year. Thus, the mechanization of agriculture has changed the type of employee many modern farmers are looking for. The once manually labour-intensive occupation now seeks computer and tech savvy staff that can operate the mechanical systems of today.

Of course, the trend towards mechanization is not the case for all agricultural producers. Many farms still require labour-intensive work in different stages of production.

Some farms simply cannot afford the hands that they need. In these cases, work exchange programs where individuals interested in farming provide labour in exchange for room and board, knowledge and skill transfer, and occasionally a stipend, have proven to be both helpful and nonproductive. The most commonly-used program is called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). Byron Petrie and Carina Phillips of Seaspray Organics said that while farm operations are manageable, having extra hands on their farm makes a substantial difference and ‘WWOOFers’ are one of the only affordable ways for them to get this help. Petrie and Phillips have learned, however, that relying on these individuals is a coin toss. “We had a great experience with Alice [WWOOFer from Montreal] last summer but we had another individual who left after only a couple of weeks,” Petrie said.

Organic farmer Jen Campbell, of Jen and Derek’s Organic Farm, echoed this concern as a reason why she chooses to hire paid employees each year. “I have had pretty good luck with employees. I choose to hire paid employees because they tend to be motivated and up for the hard manual labour on the farm. I have a few employees on-call for big harvests and hire people interested in hard work,” Campbell said.

According to Loane, there are a number of factors that go into employee retention versus attrition. Although we are seeing a resurgence in agriculture right now, Loane said, the average farmer is 55 years old and lack of interest and/or finances among the next generation is a modern phenomenon seriously threatening the future of our food production. Erratic hours and short terms of employment within the growing season deter some individuals from seeking jobs within the agricultural sector.

In addition, without a formal study completed to confirm this data, Loane says barriers likely to be keeping under-represented groups such as women, newcomers, and people of disability from entering the agricultural workforce as paid labourers include lack of: childcare, transportation, and adequate pay. These obstacles, among others, continue to suppress the industry as well as the minority groups mentioned.

According to Loane, employees who invest in their staff tend to have better luck with return employees. “There are a number of farms who have enrolled their staff in our Farm Tech Program, supported their employees in finishing their GED, provided their workers with transportation to the job, and even provided meals during the long workdays throughout the season,” Loane said. A new bursary program, PEI Farm Team, is in place to encourage students to work on a farm this summer. Eligible students can earn $500-1000 if they are hired to work on participating farms.

The state of labour in agriculture is as diverse as farms and farmers themselves. While it seems clear that there is a shortage of employees, in some cases, there are barriers to make individuals available, when the people themselves are present, ready, and willing to work. In other cases, people are not trained or lack the interest in agricultural jobs,  or farmers are not able to afford the additional staff. In any case, employers can make their establishments more attractive by investing in employees, through supporting their continued education, decreasing barriers to employment for underrepresented groups in the industry, and creating a rewarding, close-knit work environment. Organizations like PEI Agriculture Sector Council are also present to support the industry and its constituents in achieving labour success.



About Hanna Hameline

Hanna is a graduate of UPEI with a B.A. in Sociology. She has completed trainings in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Shambhala Meditation, and Maritime Yoga College 200-HR Yoga teacher training program. Hanna currently works as the communications coordinator for the PEI Certified Organic Producers Co-operative and has volunteered with PEI Food Security Network, ECO PEI, The Voluntary Resource Centre, and Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter. She warmly invites you to contact her with any food lovin’ stories or ideas you would like written about.

View All Posts