MRO Magazine

Showing appreciation for Norfolk County’s farm workers

October 3, 2023 | By J.P. Antonacci

Theirs are the unseen hands that start apples and asparagus on the journey from farm fields to grocery store shelves.

They call this country home for most of the year, but rarely feel like they belong.

They are migrant farm workers, and to many Canadians, they are invisible.

“We try to make the workers visible, and let the community know the workers are here, working for us, and they need to be recognized,” said Father Enrique Martinez, an Anglican priest in Norfolk County who leads the Diocese of Huron’s outreach ministry to migrant farm workers.


Last Friday, that ministry took the form of an outdoor appreciation night – complete with games, giveaways, food trucks and music – where workers and locals could meet one another.

“The idea is to give something back to the workers ? and thank them for everything they do for us, and every moment that they spend here, far away from their families,” Martinez said as waves of people strolled into Wellington Park in downtown Simcoe for the free event.

Approximately 5,000 seasonal agricultural workers from Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America spend up to eight months of the year in Norfolk County, whose farms lead the country in the production of many fruit and vegetable crops.

Without migrant labour, Martinez said, those crops would wither in the field, as most Canadians are unwilling or physically unable to take low-paying, labour-intensive farm jobs.

“But so many times, workers are not really appreciated. Some are treated very well (on the farm), but some are not,” he said.

Many workers cite the wages in Canada – often far superior to what they can earn at home – as the reason for spending much of the year abroad.

That is the motivation for Javier Villarreal of Mexico, who for the past decade has worked at a local ginseng farm to support his wife and their three children (two teenaged sons and a six-year-old daughter) with whom he keeps in touch through video calls on WhatsApp.

But Channa Sutherland, who is in the midst of his second six-month stint at a strawberry and apple farm, said the financial windfall is secondary for him.

“It’s not really about the money. I love farming,” said Sutherland, who farms carrots and sweet potatoes at home in Jamaica.

Sutherland said he appreciated Friday’s event as a chance to socialize with fellow farm workers and meet his neighbours in Norfolk.

“It’s a nice thing,” Sutherland said. “I love to see the communities gathering.”

Farm workers also had the chance to connect with social service agencies who set up booths at the park, including the Neighbourhood Organization (TNO), which operates a drop-in centre for migrant workers in the Simcoe Town Centre.

The agency helps workers apply for a variety of benefits guaranteed under the federally administered Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program.

“Our aim is to get the information into their hands. These guys are here alone, and they need support,” said Jennifer Rajasekar, TNO’s manager of social support services.

Rajasekar said workers also need more places to find camaraderie off the farm.

“Especially when you’re away from home,” she said.

“Just sitting around and having a conversation for 20 minutes means a lot.”

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR



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