Over the past year, the Central Okanagan Food Policy Council has had to opportunity to provide input on local government temporary farm worker housing regulation. Last year, we submitted letters to the City of Kelowna and the Regional District of the Central Okanagan. More recently, we submitted a letter to the City of West Kelowna and were invited to attend a workshop with staff from all the local governments in the Central Okanagan and representatives from different areas of the agriculture sector.
The local governments the Central Okanagan now recognize the COFPC as a key player in food system policy and planning! This is very exciting for us as being able to influence policy at a regional level helps shapes a food system that best support our community members.
When talking about temporary farm worker housing regulation, the COFPC recognizes that temporary farm workers play an essential role for the agriculture industry in the Okanagan. According to the Ministry of Agriculture there is a growing demand for temporary farm workers in the Okanagan due to the lack of farm labour and farm family succession, an aging farm labour population and the growing size of farming operations. Without temporary farm workers, many farms would not be financially viable.
While many farmers in the Central Okanagan do provide good housing for their temporary farm workers, there are some that do not. Often times, the houses do not have enough kitchen space for all the workers living in the housing. Some workers may skip meals because of this. Also, farmers do not need to stock the kitchens with pots, pans, dishes and other things that are essential to cook a healthy meal. Furniture, television, radios and internet are also not required so temporary farm workers might be living in a house without a comfortable place to sit and relax.
The COFPC thinks that a regional temporary farm worker housing strategy and regulation should be developed. The regulation should be developed to meet the needs of the farmers, but more importantly, to meet the needs of the temporary farm workers! Temporary farm workers are a part of our community while they are here working, so they should be supported and well connected!
Looking at the bigger picture of our food system, we strive to have resiliency. A resilient food system is one capable of bouncing back from adversity. Built-in redundancy is a given in a resilient food system. Redundancy requires a necessary amount of replication, which from a strictly economic standpoint, appears to be inefficient. Why raise pigs locally when pork can be purchased at a lower cost from elsewhere? Why grow apples when they can be imported cheaply and cherries can be grown and exported for higher profit? Why hire local labour when temporary farm workers will work for lower wages? Unfortunately having profitability as the main driver in agriculture decision-making can reduce food system resilience.
Our farmers are aging, in 2011 61% of farmers in BC were over the age of 55. There has been a lack of farm family succession which has contributed to the reliance on temporary farm workers to do much of the heavy lifting in farming. The temporary farm worker program has become both the solution and one of the problems with respect to loss of intergenerational transfer of farming skills.
There will likely always be a need for food imports even if all provincial ALR lands were used to growing food for local consumption. However, there is still a great deal of untapped potential in the local food system. This includes potential for job creation, social innovation, community-building, and improved soil, water, and air conditions.
Another point to consider, is how there is little to no research available to show how temporary farm workers supports or undermines the Central Okanagan’s food self-reliance. Food self-reliance supports healthy eating in the community and is a key climate change adaptation strategy. If the majority of temporary farm workers are employed on farms that produce crops destined for foreign markets then it is hard to see how this practice contributes to food self-reliance and our community’s food security.
Overall, the topic of temporary farm workers is very complex and there is a lot to think about!