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Farm labour organization hoping to carry on

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Supporters of a non-profit organization that helps farmers deal with labour issues say they hope to carry on despite an impending loss of federal funding.

The six-year-old Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council was told last summer that its funding will be terminated in March 2013.

“The council has been working toward becoming a self-sustaining organization by generating revenues through its products and services,” said Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, the organization’s executive director.

“The board of directors is striving to ensure agricultural stakeholders remain well supported and continue to have access to reliable labour market information and customizable solutions for their HR management and training needs through CAHRC.”

Finding and keeping good help on farms is tougher than ever, said Grant Hicks, a CAHRC board member and honey producer in the Peace River area.

Hicks has turned to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to get seasonal help, but says the paperwork burden needs to be addressed.

“I started in September last year and I was doing paperwork until the first week of January and it’s all nonsensical,” said Hicks, who plans to increase the number of foreign workers on his farm to nine from his usual five this year.

“These guys have been here for three or four years and some of them, seven or eight years. When they go home in the fall, they know that they want to come back here and we know that we want them to come back here and yet we start our paperwork as though it was the first time that we ever approached this.”

Serving on the council’s board has opened his eyes to the scale of agriculture’s labour woes, said Hicks. He said a fellow board member, a vegetable grower from the Maritimes, also couldn’t find workers — despite double-digit unemployment rates in his region — and nearly gave up farming.

“Then they were able to access offshore labour and now their kids are involved and they’re going to keep it going,” he said. “It’s become a profit-making thing because they could get labour that wanted to work at a cost that they could afford to pay.”

The challenge in finding labour may be national, but each province has different criteria and thresholds, which Hicks says poses a secondary challenge.

“The unemployment situation in the Maritimes is around 14 per cent and even with the 14 per cent unemployment rate, these vegetable growers were able to access foreign labour,” said Hicks. “That would not happen in the Alberta region — if we had eight per cent unemployment they would not approve it. Canada is not a level playing field, and that is the reality of it.”

CAHRC has been working with the agricultural sector to develop best practice guides and HR management tools. Hicks said he hopes the organization can continue to fund that sort of work.

“I would be a big fan of that. To me, that means they’ll become more responsive to the needs that are on the ground,” said Hicks.

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