A season unlike any other, Dentz shares challenges

Dentz Orchards and Berry Farm stands awaiting the start of the strawberry season and the opening of the farm market. – Contributed photo

MORRISBURG – For more than 60 years, the Dentz family has owned and operated Dentz Orchards and Berry Farm and in those 60 plus years they have never seen a year quite like this one.

Located north of Iroquois on County Road 16, the local producer hires both local and temporary foreign workers to help grow, pick, pack and sell their fruits and vegetables.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has the Dentz farm, like many other growers, facing many labour challenges this season.

“We were shocked when we learned that temporary foreign workers would not be allowed to enter Canada in March,” said Calvin Dentz.

“Thankfully, farm organizations quickly mobilized to inform the Federal Government of how crucial these workers are to Canada’s food security.”

The government reversed its decision to allow the agricultural workers into Canada but put very strict rules and regulations in place.

First and foremost when the workers arrive here they must be in quarantine for 14 days.

Calvin said that modifications have been made to the bunkhouse to allow for physical distancing and that the many modifications have included the installation of a new external exit door and new showers and washroom facilities.

Cathy Dentz explained that normally the men who come here to work arrive in stages with the first group of five arriving in April to help with the spring work, while more arrive in May to help with planting with the rest arriving just before the strawberry harvest.

Last year Dentz had up to 35 TFWs.

“Some of our men have worked at Dentz Orchards and Berry Farm since we started with the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program in 1994,” said Cathy. “Our Mexican workers are a familiar sight in Iroquois and Morrisburg and contribute a lot to the local economy. They shop for groceries at Foodland, Valu-Mart and Giant Tiger, frequent local restaurants and shops and love to visit the Flea Market on their Sundays off. Our workers always get a warm welcome back from the bank tellers at the Royal Bank in Iroquois.”

“This year is different,” added Cathy. “For one, the local bank is closed and for another, our farm organizations advise that our workers should stay on the farm to reduce their exposure from others in the community.”

Cathy further explained, “For our men to stay on the farm in quarantine and beyond, we’ve arranged catering for their main meal from Foodland in Iroquois. Foodland owner Mike Eastman has been terrific working with us to find solutions to ensure our men are well looked after.”

This catering has meant that the men need less in the way of groceries but they still need various items. Cathy is doing that shopping for the men once a week.

“All the money for food and supplies stays right here in South Dundas,” said Calvin. For example new rubber boots and rain suits were all purchased locally at H&I Country Supply or Canadian Tire. He added that all of the materials for the bunkhouse renovations were also purchased locally.

The first foreign workers usually arrive from Mexico April 1st, but this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 circumstances they were late arriving. On top of that late arrival, they were then required to quarantine for 14 days.

“So, they began work on Monday, May 11th – six weeks later than we needed them to start,” said Calvin. “The delay meant that we had to scramble to find local help quickly to get our spring jobs done.”

“The first critical job we had to do this spring that couldn’t wait for our foreign workers to arrive was to rake the straw off the strawberries,” said Cathy. “So, we decided to have a ‘raking party’ with about a dozen local teenagers. We kept our physical distance outside in the strawberry field while raking every other row. We were so thankful not only for the hired help, but for the extra support we received from some of our friends and neighbours who came out to join us in the field on the Saturday of Easter weekend. This was such a great example of neighbours helping neighbours.”

While the local help was very much appreciated, the Dentzes agree that it is crucial for them to continue to have their highly skilled foreign workers here. “Our regular workers have been doing this job for years, know what they are doing and can work independently in the field,” said Calvin.

While the first foreign workers who arrived are now able to work, the next four arrivals will be out of quarantine and ready to work on June 8th.

The number of those skilled foreign workers coming here this year is fewer than previous years because of the difficulties with securing permits, etc, from Mexican officials as that country too is coping with office closures and pandemic related service reductions. On top of that, flights are hard to secure. Already Dentz is seeing a 20 per cent reduction in its skilled workforce, but is hopeful that they will be able to bring in at least two-thirds of those workers whom they normally employ.

“Given the backlog and the quarantine period, it’s a race against time to see if they will be ready to work before harvest begins,” said Calvin. “One thing about the recent cold weather is the berries could be a little behind this year, but if the nice warm weather continues, they could catch up to average start dates.”

Dentz generally hires about 10 summer students through the Canada Summer Jobs program which is late in notifying employers about eligibility. “Which is understandable given the unique circumstances we are in this year,” said Cathy. “We desperately want to hire the students now as we are waiting for the foreign workers to arrive from Mexico and we can’t predict how many workers we will get this season.”

Despite the labour challenges, Dentz is hopeful they will have the manpower they need to harvest and sell their crops.

“If we do not receive enough foreign workers from Mexico, it will mostly impact our wholesale business to grocery stores,” explained Calvin.

“We want to reassure the local community that we will still sell berries and other produce at our farm market,” added Cathy.

They expect to be able to open for pick-your own, although there will be some changes to keep staff and customers safe.

“We hope many people come out and support us by buying local,” they said.

While this year has presented a number of labour challenges, the unique circumstances brought together a number of teenagers, friends and neighbours for a ‘raking party’ as people helped with the raking of the strawberry fields because the farm’s foreign workers were still under quarantine. – Contributed photo

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