4 Dog days

Back-to-back years of record-setting wildfires have given way to a largely temperate summer in much of BC. Drought ratings dropped with rains that began in the province’s northeast in late June and triggered severe flooding in the Chilcotin in July. Seven of the province’s 32 water basins recorded normal moisture levels as this issue went to press, a marked improvement from a month ago. So much for the dog days of summer! But the work goes on regardless, whether it’s fighting to save crops from

pests, picking berries or caring for the animals that yield milk, eggs and meat for our tables. The farmers, farm hands and cowboys are busy regardless of weather, and tended to by extension workers, emergency operations personnel and administrators. The breadth of jobs that support BC agriculture is wide, but so is the gap facing employers: there’s simply not enough people in Canada to do the work needed. And if there is, then there’s a shortfall in skills, which include not only those we learn in books and on the job but the soft skills such as punctuality, attention to detail and responsiveness to co-workers and business partners. In short, there’s a lot of people willing to work, but good people are hard to


This is where the labour challenges facing farm businesses can’t depend solely on temporary solutions. While initiatives such as the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program have proven invaluable to farmers here and across Canada, the recent move by Ottawa to create a pathway to permanent resident status for temporary foreign workers (excluding SAWP participants) is an opportunity to welcome workers who have found jobs in Canada as residents. The initial three-year pilot program will allow workers to apply for permanent residency after one year. Employers who presented to a senate committee on the agri-food sector say these workers often become long-term staff. Just as crops don’t mature overnight, workers require time to become fully productive. The training stay might be expensive, but retention means it’s a one-time cost for years of returns. Now, if only younger workers in Canada would take on some of the roles. While many ambitious young people here in Canada are willing to be small business owners – read, farmers – few want to become weed-eating, hand- harvesting, teat-pulling grunts. Of course, that last category doesn’t even exist anymore: robots are milking cows now, and they’re eyeing greenhouse and other horticulture jobs next. The future of farming may be female, as the saying goes, but that’s because the manpower has been replaced by technology.


Technology is a key focus for the new food security task force the province announced in July. It’s also likely to underpin the proposals the federal government receives as part of the $20 million food waste reduction challenge set to launch next year. Of course, technology has always hauled agriculture forward. The horse without a harness or the ox without a yoke would be wild animals. Technology in the form of these simple tools, combined with wooden, then steel ploughs literally changed the face of the earth and created jobs that have since given way to tractors and other technologies. The people out in the field today may not be there tomorrow. But we need

fresh minds with a long-term vision of where the sector is growing to attract people to the work that needs doing tomorrow, no matter what the weather brings.

Keeping the kids safe down on the farm

The provincial labour code was amended in April. One of the changes raised the minimum age of workers to 16. The move was prompted by WorkSafeBC payments of $5.2 million to workers 15 and under from 2007 to 2017. The amendments provide for some

The Back Forty BOB COLLINS

exceptions, including work on a family farm (presumably by family members) and chores not considered formal employment. I wonder how many kids growing

up on a farm or ranch don’t have chores not considered formal employment by the time they are old enough to start school? It’s been a long time since I was a kid but when I was, chores were

considered a mandatory prerequisite to breakfast and dinner. This circumstance proved very effective from a management perspective and highly motivational for the workforce. The chores were always done and there never was a serious workplace injury. Looking back on it now, I would have to say the safety record owed more to luck than good planning. There were plenty of close calls. Firewood was a daily requirement. There was a simple equation: 10 acres of bush + boys + chainsaw + axes = firewood. Today, chainsaw operators are encouraged to take a course and be equipped with a full range of safety wear: hard hat, eye protection, hearing protection, gloves, safety pants and steel-toed caulk boots. As soon as we mastered the chainsaw starting procedure, we headed off into the bush in our toques and gumboots and started falling trees.

It was the same story with equipment. When I was 13, I got a summer job on

a dairy farm. On day two, I was given an abbreviated introduction to starting, stopping and changing the gears of a John Deere 420 and the idiosyncrasies of the side delivery rake it was hooked to. Ten minutes later, I was off on a four- mile jaunt down the highway to rake a field of hay. There were no words of caution about tractors and traffic and, as was usual for the time, no slow- moving vehicle sign, no flashing lights, no seat belt, and no ROP. All’s well that ends well but in retrospect, it’s a little chilling to consider how easily things could have gone wrong. The $5.2 million WorkSafeBC says it paid in compensation to workers 15 and under is a sad reminder that things do not always end well. No one would expect even a 16-year-old to be given a job in a sawmill or on a construction site without adequate training and safety equipment, and the same should hold true for agriculture. Especially for agriculture. Most farm and ranch kids live in a workplace that is inherently dangerous.

Most of them start chores early on and take pride in being part of family team. It is part of farming and ranching tradition and it’s a good one. But the line between what chores are safe and appropriate and which are dangerous can be blurry, and kids are often anxious to prove themselves by doing more than they are safely capable of. Summer and fall are the most dangerous seasons for agriculture. All of us need to take a realistic look at what chores our kids and grandchildren are doing and what environment and circumstances they are doing them in. Then answer two questions: what could go wrong? And, how do we make it safer? Bob Collins raises beef cattle and grows produce on his farm in the Alberni

Valley. Publisher Cathy Glover

The agricultural news source in British Columbia since 1915 Vol.105 No.8 . AUGUST 2019

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