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Is the cannabis industry taking your workers?

Canada: Industry professionals react to labor shortages

Greenhouse growers in Canada are dealing with labor shortages and it was reported that the growing amount of cannabis producers were worsening it. The industry has been grappling with a tight labor supply for years, and the issue is only made worse by the current record low national unemployment rate.

The Canadian government legalized cannabis in October 2018 and the industry has been expanding incredibly fast. The newly emerging sector is posing a new challenge for traditional greenhouse growers according to farm groups.

The skills required for working in a greenhouse – whether it be cannabis, flower or vegetables – are similar. But because the cannabis industry has the resources to pay a better wage, many skilled workers elect to work in that field over the vegetable and floral fields.

Various different industry professionals have since responded to the situation.

Creative approaches to labor
Andrew Morse, Executive Director of Flowers Canada states that growers continue to find creative approaches to finding and maintaining access to labor. "Some farms have expanded their efforts toward automation, some have utilized the migrant worker programs, most put a considerable amount of effort toward attracting workers in their local areas, and other farms have worked to improve the skill set and efficiency in the workers already employed by the farm."

"Finding a sizeable workforce near the farm is often one of the largest challenges facing greenhouses. In addition, the seasonality of peak labor demands makes it hard to find a workforce that can respond to the changing demand."

Not just cannabis
Mike van Steekelenburg with CosMic Plants suggests that the pull from the cannabis growers combined with the minimum wage hike in Ontario on last January, first lead to a large increase in wages for workers in greenhouses.

Some growers also state that the impact of the growing cannabis industry hasn’t solely caused issues with labor, but also with the supporting industry: service contractors, builders, welders, etc. "Some estimate that building a greenhouse with all infrastructure now costs approximately 30-40% more than what it was three years ago, before the marijuana hype", says Van Steekelenburg. 

Workers in some less populated areas of Canada, like George Scott from Scott’s Nursery from the province of New Brunswick have less workforce to choose from. Scott’s Nursery, however, are very fortunate to have loyal workers who return year after year to work for them. The issue of labor in their province is not so much affected by the growing cannabis industry, but rather all the other construction, landscaping and service jobs who can pay more. For them, the major challenge is holding on to people after having trained them.

Competing for labor
Len Vander Lugt president and owner of Aldershot Greenhouses also does not feel that their operation, in particular, is being affected by the upcoming cannabis operations. Rather he feels like others that the very low unemployment levels and booming economy are much bigger factors. He does believe that the greenhouse growers in the more rural regions are now competing for the same labor pool with cannabis operations.

Michiel Verheul from High Q Greenhouses, like many other growers, identifies the increasing cost of labor due to rising minimum wage as the larger issue. Michiel also points out the overall lower succession in agriculture. In Sturgeon County of his home province Alberta there are now 40% less farms than in 2001. "The farms are either bigger, or more specialized."

Automation and migrant workers
Besides relying on temp work, many companies are looking towards automation as a possible solution. The migrant worker programs continue to be strong and reliable sources of labour: many farms and farm organizations have worked to improve their ability to utilize these programs through creating resources for migrant workers, and ensuring that the farm can effectively communicate with non-English speaking employees.

Arielle DeBoer from Rosa Flora said that they look to hire Canadians first, always, but it has been the situation for some time that they cannot recruit sufficient Canadians to fill their labour needs. "So we participate in the federal labour programs. Without these programs, we could no longer function as a business. Our workers through this program come from Mexico and Guatemala." Like others, she said that the biggest challenge as a business with regard to hiring is finding middle management, experienced and qualified growers with knowledge of production horticulture.

Flowers Canada continues to work toward helping members maintain awareness for and access to many tools and resources to assist with labour challenges. They continue to develop training which aims to improve efficiency of the workforce, and helps farms to work with multicultural workforces. The association has partnered with other agricultural labour organizations to ensure that flower farmers have access to many tools to help them find and maintain access to workers.