Seasonal labour: a constant struggle
For farmers, when it comes to finding employees who can meet their unique labour needs, the problem is often in the timing.
In peak periods like seeding and harvest, farmers often find they are stuck with more work than they can handle. This can be remedied to a certain extent by help from family members and neighbours, but sometimes even that’s not enough.
“Where it gets to be a little tricky for a farmer is when you need them, you need them,” said Alan Dooley, an Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development
(AARD) labour recruiter. “If you want somebody for the middle of April when you start seeding, having them in the middle of February or in the middle of June doesn’t do you any good.”
This leads farmers to search for seasonal labourers who can be employed exclusively for the busiest times of year—a task easier said than done given Alberta’s current job market.
“With the unemployment so low and the participation rate so high, there just aren’t that many people available,” said Dooley. “And if people are looking for work, they may be looking for permanent kinds of work.”
Glenn Logan, an Alberta Barley director-at-large and Lomondarea farmer, has had his share of trouble finding seasonal labour.
“At particular times of the season, it’s difficult to find someone,” said Logan. “Usually when you want seasonal labour, you want them right now. So that’s a bit of a problem.”
Dooley cited the loss of prospective agriculture employees to more attractive positions in areas like the oil patch and construction as one reason for the shortage of seasonal labour.
“We hear all the time that construction and the oil industry take workers away from, or share labour with, agriculture,” said Dooley. “Sometimes the salaries aren’t related or competitive.
“Money talks, particularly at the lower wage levels. Maybe if you’re making $40 an hour and somebody offers you $42 you don’t care that much, but if it’s $12 and somebody offers you $15—the difference may be your standard of living.”
A valuable source of seasonal labour for farmers can be the flood of university students looking for summer work each year. However, when it comes to agriculture students, many of whom grew up on farms and are experienced in farm labour, internships and co-ops offered by large agriculture are wooing them away from hands-on work.
Dylan Myhr, a third-year agronomy student at the University of Saskatchewan, has experience working both in a summer position for an agriculture company and as a seasonal labourer on farms and ranches.
Myhr, who grew up on a family farm near Preeceville, SK, found that he enjoyed working as a seasonal labourer more than working for an agriculture company.
“As a seasonal worker, I enjoy that work a lot more,” said Myhr. “There are fewer worries for the most part.”
Seasonal labour has some considerable benefits for the young man, including a large diversity of work, the opportunity to work outdoors and flexible hours that allow him to be at home for important periods like seeding.
“I enjoy labour work compared to sitting in an office. I don’t like being indoors, I like being outside in the field,” he said. “Not everybody wants to get dirty—it all depends on the person.”
According to Dooley, Myhr isn’t the only one.
“There are people who like animals and like that country lifestyle, and to that extent the industry has to snag those ones if it can,” he said.
Despite strong commodity prices, wages for seasonal farm labour are often not competitive with their counterparts in the oil patch and construction.
Dooley noted that the volatility of commodity prices is one reason farmers need to hire with caution.
“You know what grain cycles are like,” he said. “You can’t start promising the world.”
Instead, he recommended that farmers try to do a better job of positively portraying their businesses to prospective employees.
“People in agriculture need to work at giving their place the perception of a good place to work,” he said. “Play to your strengths.”
Additionally, the provincial and federal governments offer programs designed to help farmers and other businesses hire and retain skilled, temporary employees, both from Canada and abroad.
“They’ve been quite helpful,” said Logan. “There are always discussions and changes happening in that area because
I think the government does recognize the problems in agriculture and accessing labour.”
Resources for Employers
- Temporary Foreign Worker Program (Federal Government)
- Seasonal Agriculture Worker Program (Federal Government)
- Services for Employers (Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers)
- Summer Farm Employment Program (Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development)