Hubert Pomerleau picks Red Delicious apples from an orchard in Summerland in this 2016 photo. This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, fruit growers throughout British Columbia will face additional challenges. (Summerland Review file photo)

Orchardists face challenges from COVID-19 pandemic

Physical distancing and availability of workers will affect fruit growing operations and harvest

Fruit growers in the Okanagan and Similkameen are facing challenges as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Steve Brown, a Summerland orchardist and the president of the B.C. Tree Fruits Cooperative, said the pandemic is already affecting those who would normally be hiring temporary foreign workers to assist with pruning, thinning and harvesting.

“The foreign workers stream has been interrupted,” he said.

While Canada’s borders have been closed, the regulations allowing temporary foreign workers to come to Canada have changed in the past few weeks.

However, some fruit growers who were expecting to bring eight to 10 workers into the country have only been able to bring in two or three — or in some cases, none at all.

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While Brown and some other fruit growers have completed their early pruning, the next challenges will be hand thinning and picking, since these are tasks requiring much labour.

In the past, Brown has hired Canadian workers from Quebec and elsewhere to provide part of his summer labour force.

This year, he expects fewer Quebec workers and fewer transient labourers during the fruit harvest.

Some local workers who have been laid off from other jobs may fill a portion of the labour gap, he added.

Once a labour force is in place, the regulations governing COVID-19 will result in changes to orchard operations.

People are to practice physical distancing, keeping at least two metres from each other in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.

During the picking, this two-metre distance can be observed. Brown said fruit growers may assign rows of trees to individual pickers, and may set out individual bins for each to use.

However, those who have fruit storage areas at their orchards will face additional challenges when loading the fruit into these areas.

“This is an essential service. This is food,” Brown said. “This is an operation where you can’t tell your employees to work from home.”

He added that the challenges facing British Columbia’s fruit growing industry are the same challenges facing food producers around the world as the pandemic continues.

“It certainly brings food security questions home,” he said.

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