Seasonal workers play a critical role on Ontario farms

By Melanie Epp

(from left) Neville Spencer, Greggory Foster, Ken Forth, Donald Deyer and Richard Edwards in a greenhouse full of young broccoli plants.

When Donald Deyer started working on Ken Forth’s vegetable farm in southwestern Ontario, he was just 29 years old. The Jamaican native is now 58 years old, which means he’s spent the better part of his adult life working here, on a part time basis, in Canada. Like many seasonal workers, Deyer arrives on the farm in late spring and remains throughout the growing season. On average, his contract lasts six to seven months each year. He is one of 16 seasonal workers that work on Forth’s farm through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), a program that has been in place since 1966.

After the first and second World Wars, displaced immigrants came to Canada seeking a new life. Many families lacked money and education, and most couldn’t speak English. Farms commonly hired new immigrants, providing them with a place to live in exchange for help around the farm. By 1965, though, those workers were ready to retire and there was nobody to fill the gap. On top of that, immigration rules had changed. Immigration Canada was accepting new immigrants with high-tech backgrounds, post-secondary education and money, leaving the country – and especially farms – short on labourers. In places like Mexico and Jamaica, though, there were a lot of workers with no work. In Canada, the situation was quite the opposite. While we had plenty of work to offer, there were no workers accepting the jobs.

Back home, Donald has a wife and four children, one boy and three girls. His wife works as a schoolteacher. Working in Canada has allowed Donald to put his children through school and enabled him to buy a better home. He says he makes 10 times more money in Canada than he could ever make at home in Jamaica. Although Donald misses his family, he enjoys working on Forth’s farm so much so that he looks forward to returning each year.

Life on the farm for the 16 seasonal workers is much the same as it is on any farm. The men work when there is work to be done, and take days off when work is scarce. They plant, harvest and package vegetables, including broccoli, cucumbers, peppers and lettuce. Some days they work very little, some days they work from sun up to sun down. That’s life on the farm.

“We work, and when we don’t work, we sleep,” they laugh.

“If the crops are good, you can make really good money,” says Donald. “You send some home, keep some back to buy things.”

When asked if it was hard for him to be away from his family for so long, Donald shook his head. “You get used to it,” he says. “Why I like working here is because it’s good money. I can send my kids to school and pay for my house, so that’s why I like it. When I come here I can make good money – better than back home.”

Another worker, Neville Spencer, 52, agrees. He’s been working on Forth’s farm for 17 years. Back home in Jamaica, he’s got three children, two boys and one girl. When asked what keeps him coming back, Neville laughs. “I keep coming back for…” He pauses; rubbing his fingers and thumb together, making the universal sign for money.

It’s a common theme. Forth’s workers are paid well, which means they can afford to pay for the important things back home. Richard Edwards, 44, has a wife who works as a part-time cashier and two little girls he hopes to put through school. In Jamaica, education is only free until grade eight. After that, parents must pay if they want their children to continue. It’s a luxury many can’t afford. Richard has been working on Forth’s farm for 13 years, sending money home to his family with the hope that his two little girls will be able to continue their education.

Greggory Foster, 34, has a similar story. He hopes to put his two little girls through school, too. The money he earns on Forth’s farm is sent home to his family in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica.

On Forth’s farm, the workers are treated well. They have their own house, a 4,000-square foot living space they share together. They do their own laundry and cooking, and clean up after themselves. On Fridays, Forth has arranged for a bus to pick the workers up so they can go into town. There they spend the day grabbing necessities, like groceries, for the week. Aside from food, room and board is completely paid for, as is half of their airfare. It’s a pretty good deal.

While one would think that the pain of separation would be difficult to bear, each one of these men looks forward to returning to Canada each spring. “Yes, we miss them,” says Richard, referring to his family in Jamaica. “But it’s nice to be in a home away from home.” He smiles. “This is home.”

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