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Pandemic delays foreign workers, seeding on Sask. farms

When Cornelia Michaelsen and her husband Ole got the news that Cornelia was pregnant with their second child, they were happy, ready for an added but welcomed stress to their normal spring seeding routine, near Lampman, Sask.
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When Cornelia Michaelsen and her husband Ole got the news that Cornelia was pregnant with their second child, they were happy, ready for an added but welcomed stress to their normal spring seeding routine, near Lampman, Sask.

The boy is due in mid- to late-May.

But the pair hadn’t planned on a worldwide pandemic sweeping the globe, disrupting the world economy and potentially hitting their farm where it hurts — yields and finances.

Travel restrictions prompted by the spread of COVID-19 infections in Canada are forcing the couple to now find a work-around to seeding all of their 11,000 acres of land with less temporary foreign workers (TFWs).

The land size is about 44.5 square kilometres, almost the size of Moose Jaw.

The Michaelsens planned to hire seven workers for this year’s seeding, expecting their arrivals from Germany and Switzerland before or on April 1.

“We were extra careful; we hired an especially big crew compared to other years … we were hoping to have a good crew to be done with seeding by the time the baby arrived so to free up some time for my husband,” Cornelia said.

They farm a combination of canola, wheat, durum, soybeans and lentils.

As of April 13, they’ve only managed to get three of the seven workers to Saskatchewan, a man from Germany and two men from Switzerland.

Ole moved to Lampman, about 200 kilometres southeast of Regina, 12 years ago in 2008 after immigrating from Germany; Cornelia, originally from Switzerland, joined him in 2016.

Each year they hire workers from their home countries. They use one of two visa programs for each hire: A Labour Market Impact Assessment visa or an International Experience Canada visa.

“It's been going great for us … usually it's word of mouth. The people who came (a prior) year, they send people for the following year,” Cornelia said.

Workers are highly-trained professionals or students who spend three to four years studying agriculture and apprenticing on farms in Europe, she said.

“Not just anybody can step on a tractor and get the job done. It's a lot of technology involved and a lot of scouting. And so we really count on those people,” Cornelia explained.

Their size of farm requires multiple people working at a time.

“You can't be everywhere and check out every field, so you need the people to have some kind of knowledge, the people you send in the field.”

The couple usually opts for TFWs, because "in our area the main business is oil, after farming, and a lot of people go and work in the oil business, so it's almost impossible for us to find workers who want to work on farms here," she said.

The federal government operates both visa programs. It has approved temporary foreign workers to enter and work in Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic, as long as they self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival.

But the Michaelsens worry that confusion at airports in Europe and with Canada Border Services Agency officers here will pose too many hurdles for the remaining four employees to arrive, let alone choose to leave home for Saskatchewan.

Of their three arrivals, Cornelia said one was initially denied boarding onto his plane; he was then asked to get a health check completed at a Canadian embassy.

For now, she said they’re trying to book flights for the remaining four workers, all of whom have approved visas. They’re expecting more headaches with flights being booked full or cancelled as more Canadians try flying home.

Theirs isn’t an isolated problem brought by the pandemic.

“We had somewhere between 80 and 100 (TFWs) in the pipeline” ready to come and work here, said Anita Warriner.

She’s the executive director of International Rural Experience Canada, a non-profit that matches agriculture-focused temporary workers from Denmark, Germany and Switzerland with host families in Saskatchewan.

Since COVID-19 hit Canada, 50 of those workers are still in Europe. They’re either choosing not to travel, being asked by their host families to stay home or getting delayed by changed or cancelled international flights, Warriner said.

She agreed that less workers available means seeding will be delayed and sluggish.

“It will just mean a lot of long hours. It may mean training people that might suddenly leave in the middle of June because they got a better offer,” she said.

The Michaelsens don't know how hard the shortage will hit their finances, but they’ve already had to delay their seeding routine.

“Everyday we are behind our schedule, it will cost us yield for sure,” Cornelia said.

Anticipating energy-sector layoffs in the Lampman and southeast areas, she said a possible work-around is hiring "truck drivers, local people to help out where we still need people."

Evan Radford is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter based out of the Regina Leader-Post