BROCKVILLE, ON. --
Temporary foreign workers are key to a successful farming operation, especially on berry and vegetable farms throughout the province, but 2020 has been a challenging one for the farms, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
"My husband was ready to call it quits in March when he found out we couldn't get any temp foreign workers," Cathy Dentz says from Dentz's Orchards and Berry Farm north of Iroquois. "They are essential to our farm operation. We cant work without them."
The Dentz farm has been around for more than 50 years and has worked with the Seasonal Worker Agricultural Program, or SWAP, for more than 25 years.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, and the government suspended entry into the county, they thought they had a big problem.
"We were shocked. We knew that our guys were essential to getting our crops off and plant new crops," Dentz said.
Luckily, the government reversed the decision quickly, but added strict guidelines for temporary workers, like a 14-day quarantine.
"They weren't allowed to leave the bunkhouse at all for 14 days and that's important for their safety and the safety of others," Dentz said.
"We used a lot of local high school students to help us. Some neighbours, some friends, whoever we could get to help us get that spring work done." she added.
Only 25 workers were allowed to come to the farm this year, instead of the 38 the farm requested.
Seventeen of the men were just released from quarantine on Friday, their first day of full work.
A perfect time, too, with strawberry season already in full swing.
When the men were in quarantine, they could not go into town to buy groceries, or do their banking, something they would usually do once a week
"We looked at a way how we could feed them and get them groceries. We needed help in a big way," Dentz said.
That help came from grocery stores nearby like Laura's Value Mart in Morrisburg and Foodland Iroquois.
Foodland storeowner Mike Eastman has been supplying the workers with two home cooked meals a day since the spring.
"We look forward to seeing them every spring. It's kind of like the robins coming," Eastman said, smiling. "The workers have been coming into the store for approximately 25 years. They have been great customers. They've become our friends and we look forward to seeing them every spring."
However, with the pandemic in full swing, he knew this year would be different.
"I got a call to ask if I would help and that's what we are there for. I think the fellows paid it forward for all these years and when I was asked to help I was happy to do that," Eastman said.
He began prepping meals with the help of an employee.
"We have a lady who has also come from Mexico, has been with me for 5 or 6 years now, so it has a Mexican flair. Her meals are excellent and the fellows are enjoying the taste of home," Eastman said.
The store even had to bring in some specialty items for the men.
"In the beginning, we had to come up with a menu; we had to come up with the flavours they like; we had to order foods they enjoy or that they would normally buy that I don't normally cook. Yucca root, as an example. We don't normally cook with that but, for them, we had to," Eastman said.
More than 50 meals are being prepared and delivered to the farm once or twice a day and the men are grateful.
"They've been having roast beef, potatoes, and vegetables. The other day, they had chicken, turkey, but they also have some Mexican meals as well that cater to their taste - a little bit hotter a little bit spicier," Dentz said, "and, by having pre-made meals, they don't have to take the time to cook them so they can work longer. For them, that is really important because they were not able to get as many hours when they were in quarantine. That money is really important to send home to Mexico. That's what their family lives on for the year."
The strict guidelines at the farm have also changed the working conditions in the fields
"Our guys are 2 metres apart in the fields. Every other row they are picking berries," Dentz said. "We've implemented a number of procedures to help keep our customers and employees safe. Employees have to go in through one entrance; they have to keep two-metre distance. For customers, we have barriers set up between the cash and the customer. One way in and one way out.
"We were also curbside before curbside was popular because people can just drive up, pick up their berries and go. It's working really well for us," Dentz said, smiling.
Eastman says he learned something through this as well.
"Without the experts that have come here, the fields may have just rotted. It's rewarding for me, personally, and my staff see us working hard. I think, hopefully soon, they will be able to come back into the store and live a normal life here. We miss seeing them," Eastman said. "They're like family."
"They really appreciate our guys. They come back, year after year, so we all get to know them. They have friends in the community. They go to church in the community. This becomes their community for half the year," she said. "We're just thankful that our community really showed their support during this, especially early in the spring when we needed people to help us and we didn't have our workers. We are appreciative, too, of our local grocery stores and our local bank; they've all been amazing.
"We are a small local business and we're doing our best to keep everyone safe and we want to keep our customers safe as well as our employees."
The farm has been open to drive up customers looking for already-picked baskets of strawberries, and they expect to open for pick-your-own on June 15, as they still do not have enough workers to keep ahead of the harvest.
Hours and location of the Dentz Orchards and Berry Farm can be found on their website, www.dentzfarm.com