An effort is underway to address the increasing dependence on seasonal workers in the Creston Valley’s agriculture sector.
“About 500 workers come through the valley each season,” said Paris Marshall Smith. “We now have about 400 acres of orchards and, with an additional 300 more acres anticipated soon, the demand for experienced, motivated workers will only grow.”
“One of the growing challenges for the Creston Valley is to find a solution for orchard workers who are not adequately housed,” said Regional District of Central Kootenay Area B director Tanya Wall.
Smith and Wall are part of the Fields Forward labour working group, made up of volunteers including producers and orchardists, which is working together as a region with a goal to “attract the most highly skilled motivated workers possible, and to be known for being a great place to work, and shop and so on,” Smith said.
Seasonal workers supplement the local labour supply, which also provides hundreds of workers to harvest fruit and get it ready for the market place.
“The Creston Valley simply cannot supply all the labour — few agriculture areas can,” Wall said. “Our working group is concerned that more needs to be done in terms of living accommodations and relieving pressure on our community.”
There are no requirements for orchardists to provide any accommodations, but many do, in the belief that it helps attract the best workers available. Orchardists certified through Global GAP (Good Agricultural Practices), an international organization that has strict requirements for the export market, outlines standards for accommodation, but does not require that any be provided. And there are no provincial or regional requirements to provide accommodations for workers.
“Many orchardists have found that good workers who are treated well feel welcomed and included,” Smith said. “They behave well and are a great benefit to not only their orchard but also the community at large. As a result, most orchards seek to create hospitable welcoming conditions.
“Within the group we have looked at the question of, how do we as a community establish a standard of practice that sees the orchards taking responsibility and community offering support but not bearing the burden?”
Among other concerns, that burden including cleaning up, conflict management (between property owners and workers, and between public and workers), safety patrolling, watching for fires, the threat of losing water access and general oversight.
This spring, the working group began looking for space to accommodate workers, primarily to buck a trend that has seen increasing numbers set up camp along Goat River near Canyon Bridge.
“In the last years, the number of unhoused workers staying under the bridge has risen from 7 in 2010 to 150 last summer,” Smith said. “More are expected this year. In addition to health, safety and access concerns, there is a growing number of non-workers who are living under the bridge.”
With no access that doesn’t impact private landowners, and a previous legal case that saw road access to the area from the north side of the river blocked by selling it to a private landowner, the camping issue is a growing concern. It puts added pressure on police resources, neighbouring residents and the industry as a whole, Wall said.
Earlier this month, a potential site to provide camping space for some workers was abandoned when neighboring property owners objected.
“We have no interest in working against the community,” Smith said. “Our challenge is to find the right fit so that positive interactions between local residents and seasonal workers are encouraged.”
Finding the right fit means identifying the needs.
“We need to identify the orchardists who aren’t providing accommodations and work with them to find solutions for now and into the future,” Wall said. “This summer we are going to survey the workers who camp out, asking them if they have been offered accommodations and who they are working for — getting the right information is important as we move ahead.”
She is taking a longer view of the challenges and opportunities, wondering, “What if we can build this agricultural sector so that it’s bigger and better for all? Can we add more weeks for work on either side of the cherry harvest?”
Most of the seasonal workers who arrive for the cherry harvest are only in the area for about six weeks before the work ends.
“Is it possible to build the industry so that there is a labour pool demand for maybe eight months a year instead of six weeks?”
The long-term goal, Wall added, could include acquiring land that would provide space for tents, and possibly have bunkhouses or cabins available for rent, along with kitchen and washroom facilities.
“Maybe we could work toward an agricultural expo grounds that include a commercial kitchen and space for our planned juicing equipment,” Wall said. “This is one of the things that will take us to the next level.”