December 1, 2020
The Right Thing
A good news story: How nurseries met the Covid threat head-on
BY JORDAN WHITEHOUSE
Jeff Olsen takes a deep breath when he thinks back to the week of March 16, 2020. A week earlier, his company, Brookdale Treeland Nurseries, was just hitting its peak. There are six BTN locations — four in southern Ontario, one in Chilliwack, B.C., and one in Berwick, N.B. — and all of them were fully-staffed, production plants were in full swing, and greenhouses were filling up. And then it all stopped.
Nurseries were considered essential businesses across the country, but many had virtually nowhere to ship product. Workers were also understandably cautious about going to work when governments were telling us all to stay home. Some nurseries temporarily shut down, including BTN, which laid off about 120 people, or 60 per cent of its workforce. Like most, BTN also decided to put a pause on bringing any more temporary foreign workers to the farms. “It was a very tough few weeks,” remembers Olsen.
It was for the entire nursery sector, of course. We don’t know exactly how many nursery employees were affected during the first wave of the pandemic, but international workers in particular felt the brunt. In 2019, the federal government approved over 45,000 agriculture positions in total under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program. Those numbers will be down this year, as some farms reduced their seasonal worker programs or cancelled them entirely. At Bylands Nurseries in West Kelowna, B.C., for instance, GM Mike Byland says during their busiest month, they only had 60 per cent of their usual number of temporary foreign workers.
Meanwhile, while most outbreaks among international workers happened on food production farms, a few occurred at nurseries, including at Bylands, where 23 people tested positive in the spring. Although the source of the Bylands cases may have been international workers who had the virus before entering Canada and before mandatory 14-day quarantines were implemented, positive cases on farms for any reason have proven to be PR nightmares.
However, the Covid-19 story hasn’t been all doom and gloom for nurseries, Byland and Olsen say. Yes, the personnel challenges have been huge — and they continue — but the industry as a whole is in a good position. “The one thing about Covid is that it has created a stronger connection with people and their food and also their yards,” says Byland. “And so overall that’s really positive for agriculture. I think moving forward everyone is just going to have to be ready to adapt really quickly as things change.”
Hiring and housingOnce lockdowns loosened, one of the first things nurseries had to adapt to was how to get those foreign workers into the country. For BTN, that process began around mid-April, when the company submitted its request list of foreign workers to the federal government. It was a process marked by frequent delays, says Olsen, but by early May Brookdale had about 85 per cent of its nursery workers back.
In Kelowna, Mike Byland says his company tried to supplement its decrease in international workers with domestic ones. But even though unemployment was the highest it had been in 10 years, Bylands had little to no success hiring domestic workers. “So, we just did the best we could. We made some operational decisions and didn’t do some things that we’d normally do, but just focused on trying to get as much done as we could and ship as much product as we could.”
A bigger challenge arose once those workers arrived at their homes at nurseries. Each province implemented slightly different requirements for housing and at slightly different times, but in general they required fewer people per house to ensure physical distancing, specific protocols clearly communicated to workers for preventing and controlling the risk of transmission, and site inspections.
At BTN, spacing requirements meant the company couldn’t bring in as many foreign workers as usual, while at Bylands this wasn’t really an issue because their housing generally has fewer people than the camp-style housing typical in parts of Ontario.
Some provincial health authorities, including in B.C., also recommended minimizing the amount of contact foreign workers had with the wider community. In response, and like many farms across the country, both BTN and Bylands sequestered their foreign workers on the farms for the summer. That meant they had to not only bring food or allow online ordering, but also do what they could to prevent boredom. At BTN, for instance, every house had Netflix, ping pong tables, and other extra entertainments.
Still, that sequestering didn’t go over well with everyone, says Olsen, especially when the company introduced a no-alcohol policy to prevent some disturbances that had occurred. “I think that in general they felt that ‘Boy, our employer is looking after our safety.’ But on the other side, they were bored,” he says. “They were also so removed from the community that some were like, ‘What’s really going on here?’ But when they finally went out in late August, they were shocked to see that everyone was dealing with similar protocols like masks and hand-washing and all that stuff.”
On the farmOn the farm itself, new rules and recommendations have varied slightly from province to province, and they often changed throughout the summer. Eventually, most included daily health checks, increased cleaning and hygienic practices, physical distancing requirements, mask-wearing, and appointing a dedicated coordinator for infection control and prevention.
All of that increased government oversight and contact, while necessary, was a huge adjustment, says Mike Byland. “The one thing that’s been challenging is just making sure we have the communication channels in place to make sure that everybody understands what the regulations are we’re following. Through it all we had a couple of full-time people whose only job was to support our temporary foreign workers, make sure they have what they needed, make sure they understood some of the processes that were in place, and they’ve done a great job.”
Olsen says it’s been a huge culture change to implement all of these rules at BTN too, but that from day one they took an aggressive approach. Olsen is on Landscape Ontario’s Covid-19 Task Force, so he saw the consequences of non-compliance on other farms around the province. He didn’t want that to happen at BTN, so by early April they were implementing protocols like daily temperature checks, requiring masks indoors, and even having the local health authority conduct on-site Covid tests. “And it was top-down,” says Olsen. “I did the same. All of our leadership team did the same thing. It wasn’t one set of rules for the staff and one set for the executives.”
Early adoption of these rules was the most challenging, says Olsen, mainly because people just weren’t used to them yet. No one was terminated at Brookdale, but several employees were written up. All it took to quickly get everyone onboard was one positive case of Covid-19 on the farm. The case was a young employee who had moderate symptoms, but it was a good reality check for everyone, says Olsen.
“Today, our rules are part of the normal culture, but my message to everyone is that we’re keeping our guard up,” says Olsen. In October, for instance, he sent a stern email to managers. “I just said, ‘We are on an increase in this province, and we have been for a few weeks, and this is not the time to let our guard down. I see people wearing masks improperly, I see situations where people are not being physically distanced. Keep the hammer down.’”
The futureOlsen believes that almost everyone in the nursery sector is now taking a similar aggressive approach to preventing the virus from entering and spreading on farms. The early cases on farms were a wake-up call for everyone, he says, but it’s also helped that this issue was never politicized in Canada like it has been in the U.S., and that local health authorities have taken a collaborative approach with farms, rather than a coercive one.
In Ontario at least, that collaborative relationship with health authorities may have also been due, in part, to the decisions that Landscape Ontario’s COVID-19 Task Force made early on to members. “One of those early decisions was to say, ‘Hey, we’re closing our operations, and we suggest you do, too,’’ says Olsen. “That wasn’t well received by everyone, but we believed that if the government wanted to see us as compliant and somebody who was being proactive about their own safety and the industry, then we had to recommend that people stay home and close the doors. I’m proud we did that.”
Looking forward, Mike Byland believes that farms are going to have to continue making similarly quick and proactive decisions. It’s not easy. At Bylands, for instance, employees now work in separated cohorts. “That’s been really challenging because one of the things we’ve always prided ourselves on is teamwork,” he says. “And if one team is behind, then other people from other areas come and help. Well, you can’t do that with a cohort plan.”
Byland knows how crucial those cohorts are for keeping employees and the business itself healthy into the foreseeable future. The nursery sector as a whole saw strong sales over the summer, and Byland and Olsen agree that for that to continue in 2021, and perhaps beyond, proactive and aggressive health and safety measures are going to be key.
“It’s our new normal,” says Olsen. “And as a business, we plan to keep our safety teams in place, our policies in place, and we will continue to adhere to what the public health folks set as guidelines. I think everybody in the industry should be doing the same thing, so let’s all get on the same team and let’s try to beat this thing.”
Jordan Whitehouse is a freelance writer based in Gananoque, Ont.