Organic Labour Needs: An Assessment of Ontario’s Organic Workforce

Honouring the principles of health and ecology outlined by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), organic farming embraces a limited number of conscientiously-chosen inputs, and more intensive management practices, leading to a higher need for labour. In Canada, organic farms require approximately 3.6 employees on average, compared to 1.4 employees on average per conventional farm.

Major agricultural labour shortages disproportionately threaten the continued growth and success of Ontario’s organic sector. Organic Labour Needs: An Assessment of Ontario’s Organic Workforce outlines the current state of the organic workforce in Ontario and Canada, places labour shortages at the center of organic workforce challenges, and introduces organic-specific solutions in an attempt to help fill gaps that restrict sectoral growth and sustainable workforce development. Engaging with key stakeholders including farm operators, farm workers, regulatory stakeholders and supports, and members across the value chain, the report concludes with recommendations to better equip the organic sector with the tools needed to meet organic demand domestically.

Workforce Challenges

Labour shortages are the collective symptom of the most pressing challenges in the organic workforce: seasonality, intensive physical labor, and job instability in the agricultural sector; barriers to recruitment and retention on farms and across the value chain; and insufficient training and education for organic farm workers. Labour shortages not only involve challenges sourcing workers in general, but the inability to source workers with organic-specific skills such as experience with organic management on farms and compliance experience in operations. 

Beyond the logistical barriers to accessing farm work such as housing and transportation, farm workers do not receive sufficient year-round incomes. Our survey revealed that while opportunities for rehire are commonly offered to organic farm workers, many would not return due to the desire to get more permanent, non-seasonal work with health benefits. Part of this is attributed to the high reliance of organic farms on wage subsidy programs and grants, which can phase workers out as they get older and can no longer qualify for certain wage subsidies, resulting in little opportunity for career longevity and advancement. 

Farm worker and operator training in Ontario is facilitated through formal and informal channels, but both are ultimately unsuccessful in helping to domestically supply the increased labour demands of the organic sector. Post-secondary programs at the University of Guelph, Trent University, and Fleming, Durham, and Saint Lawrence College provide theoretical teachings, but they are not geared towards the hands-on learning that both farm workers and prospective farm owners need. Outside of the post-secondary space, a lack of funding prevents farm educators from truly providing hands-on organic farming education on a larger scale.

Fairness in the Workplace

While contentious, workplace fairness is a serious point of concern throughout the agrifood sector. Farm workers in Ontario are exempted from various protections under the Employment Standards Act (ESA), such as a guaranteed minimum wage, hours of work, daily rest period, time off between shifts, eating periods, public holidays, vacations with pay and weekly or biweekly rest periods. Furthermore, agricultural workers in Ontario are not legally permitted to unionize.

Expanding worker protections and access to support for domestic and migrant workers can significantly improve worker recruitment and retention, providing economic returns for the organic sector overall. For example, B-Corps, a global certification program that ensures the highest standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and legal accountability, indicated that being linked to purpose driven work not only attracts and retains more employees, but also increases sales.

List of Recommendations

  1. Better access to wage subsidies and stronger targeting of diversity in the organic sector
  2. Create accessible, online and in-person regional resource groups for farm operator guidance and recruitment resources
  3. Incentivise development of automation technology for small/mid-sized and diversified farms, and ensure accessibility of automation technology
  4. Develop a formal farmer-led and accredited organic training program that divorces farmer training from labour needs (to ensure training is not conflated with cheap workforce)
  5. Provide a baseline training program for certification-system employees and increase awareness about careers in organic certification
  6. Support the normalization of hybrid inspections
  7. Create accessible trainings for workers in the value chain with organic-specific roles
  8. Investigate whether it is necessary and feasible to adjust local zoning bylaws to permit greater on-site worker housing and/or facilitate novel labour-saving farming arrangements
  9. Consider how fairness for organic workers may be improved and recognized through the Canadian Organic Standards, while creating opportunities for farmers and business owners

Read our full report Organic Labour Needs: An Assessment of Ontario’s Organic Workforce here.

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