Greenhouses changing practices to protect workers from COVID

By Tim Kalinowski

 

Greenhouse growers across the province are less concerned about getting their seasonal workers into the country than keeping them healthy now that they are here, says Albert Cramer, chair of the Alberta Greenhouse Growers Association and co-owner of Rolling Acres Greenhouses and Big Marble Farms near Medicine Hat.

“For the greenhouse industry as a whole we would probably be ahead of the curve because we put our plants already in at the beginning of January to the beginning of February,” he explains. “So most of our workers would have been here already before this travel ban.

“Some use the SWAP program, and probably those ones don’t have their workers yet, but I don’t think there are too many greenhouses that don’t have most of their workers already here.”

To ensure workers remain COVID free on the job site, Cramer says larger greenhouses like Big Marble Farms have instituted new social distancing policies and other measures to prevent an outbreak of the disease amongst their workforces. They have also set up quarantine houses if such measures should become necessary to isolate ill workers to keep them away from others.

“In the greenhouse the workers are separated anyway, but we have tried to make sure they stay separated from each other,” explains Cramer. “And with the bulk of our employees at Big Marble, they check temperatures and we have a place already set up if we had to isolate somebody. We’re monitoring it pretty close.

“And we rotate the lunch periods so the workers are not all in the lunch room together, and just making sure they are not in a whole group setting during the day … It’s like food safety, once you buy into the system it becomes a natural process.”

While most greenhouse growers have their workers in place for the year, Cramer admits that field vegetable growers are feeling the stress of the moment with many unable as of yet to get their workers into the country. He also sits on the national Canadian Horticulture Council board and hears that side of the problem.

“There is a big worry for the field vegetable guys as to how they are going to get their workers,” he confirms. “It looks like it’s OK; it looks like (federally) it’s going to happen. But they have to bring them here once they are given that timeline, and then they have to isolate for 14 days, and then start working. So it’s going to take a bit more time to get going this year.”

Cramer expects many to turn to the local marketplace to consider bringing in and training Canadian workers if the delay lasts much longer.

“If you were in a pinch, I think there are probably quite a few (Canadians) who would work now,” he says. “It’s always a Catch-22, and people ask why don’t you just hire local people now? But these (seasonal workers) systems are all in the place. And of course those workers are skilled in what they do. If you had to train everybody, it’s pretty hard. But for those in need of workers, they might have to do that a bit more. If you advertise today, I am sure you would get people to work.”

Returning to a greenhouse industry perspective, Cramer says on top of concerns about keeping workers healthy most greenhouse owners are concerned that international supply chains may break down as the COVID-19 crisis continues.

“There are so many unknowns because nothing like this has ever happened before,” he admits. “If this goes into July or August, it’s going to be problematic to get those greenhouse supplies we need.

“At our farm, for example, our growing media comes from Sri Lanka of all places. I read recently that (country) is locked down, and they are not getting anything done as far as preparing for the next crop year. That could be a huge problem for us too.

“But, you know, we try not to put the cart too much in front of the horse.”

Cramer says overall greenhouse growers are proud to be able to help out in this moment of national crisis but doing what they do best: Growing food.

“At this point, we are still growing food,” he states. “It’s probably a good business to be in at this point in this crisis. It’s essential, and we have to stay going.”