OPINION: OFA striving to secure long-term agriculture labour strategy

Labour has been a longstanding critical issue impacting the agriculture and food value chain.

The Feeding Your Future initiative was developed with the primary objective of addressing chronic labour shortages.

Funding from both the Ontario government and Canadian government through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership created the opportunity to introduce more than just a labour initiative, but a long-term strategy to live beyond the immediate impacts of COVID-19.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) appreciates government support to empower the agricultural community by addressing hindered growth of the sector.

Job vacancies have cost farmers an estimated $1.5 billion. As an essential industry and significant economic contributor the agri-food sector is part of the solution for economic recovery in this province.

Filling vacant roles along the food value chain will create investment opportunities, job growth and help to secure a sustainable food production system.

Feeding Your Future has built momentum over the past year, helping to address immediate labour gaps. Services have uniquely been tailored to serve Ontario farmers in a virtual format.

The initiative has been an excellent opportunity to collaborate and build relationships with stakeholders in the industry and welcome diverse backgrounds and skillsets.

As the largest general farm organization in the province, the OFA provides a vehicle to connect our members and job seekers, but we cannot succeed independently.

The project has opened opportunities for further collaboration, allowing OFA to pull groups and individuals together to expand beyond our network.

Offering regional and province-wide virtual career fairs with AgCareers.com and CareersInFood.com has provided the opportunity for employers to connect directly with job seekers despite the barrier of no in-person job fairs.

Webinars, hosted by AgCareers.com, have covered relevant topics for employers to learn strategies to implement on their farm.

Crafting job descriptions, enhancing workplace culture and diversifying the workplace are a few of the topics that have provided an opportunity to learn from experts.

It’s no secret that as farmers, we prefer to focus our energy on growing our crops or raising livestock, rather than trying to teach ourselves how to become a human resources department.

It is important to recognize, however, that workplace culture is everything when it comes to retaining employees on the farm.

The webinars provide tips and strategies for the hiring as well as how to improve communication and enhance workplace culture, meaning we can use the tips to improve and get back to doing what we love.

We utilized the job matching concierge service for hiring on the farm this year.

We were able to work with an AgCareers.com staff member who helped create a job description for the position and connected us with applicants. It was a very easy, hands-off process and also free.

Ontario farmers are receiving the benefit of personalized services for hiring to fill a short-term void.

And although this initiative has had a short-term focus, it aims to have a long-term vision.

Educational resources have been established including the Agriculture Worker Safety and Awareness Certificate, developed with the University of Guelph Ridgetown Campus, which addresses both labour attraction and retention.

As an introductory program, it welcomes those who may have limited or no knowledge in the agriculture field and provides basic farm awareness to build confidence for workers—part of the retention strategy.

To grow exposure of the various education and career opportunities in agriculture, a new certificate program is currently being developed with an accredited post-secondary institution.

The OFA appreciates the federal and provincial governments responding to longstanding labour challenges in the agri-food sector and we hope to see continued support in the future.

Collaboration welcomes positive change and it is important to provide our members with resources offering long-term gain.

With a lack of sufficient labour, burn out and exhaustion can happen easily – further emphasizing the need for long-term strategy to ensure the agri-food value chain remains strong, reliable and profitable.

Jennifer Doelman is an Ontario Federation of Agriculture director.

Jennifer Doelman