Why Alberta beekeepers need foreign AND local workers
Why Alberta beekeepers need foreign AND local workers
By Kieran Brett, for Alberta Beekeepers Commission
There’s a lot of talk about reserving agricultural jobs for Canadians, rather than inviting foreign workers in. In this special report from Alberta Beekeepers Commission, we check in on two Alberta honey operations and their local and foreign staff, to learn why that’s just not realistic.
When urban people think about Temporary Foreign Workers on Canadian farms, some are quick to make assumptions. Mike deJong has heard them all.
“There are some myths that have taken hold and we need to explain to people, that’s not how it really is,” says deJong, who owns Busy Bee Farm near Camrose, Alberta with his wife Jenny. “The two main myths are, people think our foreign workers are paid very little and live in poor accommodations.”
In a year like 2021, some have said that keeping foreign workers out would boost employment opportunities for Canadians in the post-COVID recovery.
DeJong believes it’s not that simple. He maintains that local workers can’t replace the skill and experience of his team of up to 16 workers from Mexico and the Philippines.
“We’ve always relied on both foreign labour and Canadians from our local area,” says deJong. “We will typically have 12 to 16 workers from overseas – and then seven to 10 Canadian youth who might be high school or university students.”
As deJong explains, before setting up Busy Bee Farm in 2008, he gained experience by working on other Alberta honey operations. Many Canadian workers are looking to do the same, rather than staying with the same employer longer term. Younger Canadians might work a few weeks here and there, then return to school or travel.
It’s different when you’re in it for life. “Beekeeping is a lifestyle and it doesn’t suit everyone,” says deJong. “We’ll start at 8 am and we might work until 8 or 9 pm – then we get up the next day and do it again.”
The deJongs have taken pride in building staff accommodation that allows each worker the space, quiet and privacy of having their own room. It’s a long way from the mistaken public image of foreign worker housing.
“Several of the guys have been with us the past 10 years, and they’ve made a huge contribution to our farm,” says deJong. “They are like family to us, and of course we want them to be comfortable.”
In this kind of work, skill is vital and there’s no substitute for experience. Someone who’s new to beekeeping takes a long time to get efficient and self-directed at it. That’s where deJong’s long-standing Mexican and Filipino team members truly excel.
“We can have between 8,000 and 10,000 hives, spread out over many locations. I need to know that people know what they’re doing when they open a hive,” he says. “My 16 foreign guys are so experienced, it runs like clockwork. There is just no replacing them.”
Local student says foreign workers’ experience is key
For Adam Tomm, the summer of 2020 was a learning experience he’ll never forget. He worked at Mike deJong’s bee operation in a variety of roles. At first, the learning curve was steep.
“The first day was a bit of a shock, because the work is very fast-paced,” says Tomm, currently a second-year Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Alberta. “There is a lot of physical activity and I was not in shape for the first week or two.”
Local employees receive most of their instruction and supervision from deJong himself. The farm’s seasoned crew of Mexican and Filipino workers also readily share their knowledge with the local people.
“If they saw me struggling with something, they’d come over and show me a better way to do it,” Tomm says.
At Busy Bee Farm, 12-hour shifts are common in the summer and crews work six days per week. On days when deJong’s bees were pollinating canola seed fields in southern Alberta, the drive to the Brooks or Vauxhall area would start at 5 am and they’d return to the farm at 8 pm or 9 pm.
During the summer’s long work shifts, Tomm came to admire the work ethic, experience and beekeeping skill of the overseas crew.
“One thing was, we might have hundreds of bee yards to get to, and sometimes, even just finding them is a challenge,” says Tomm. “They know every bee yard by its own name and know how to get there.”
Tomm and the other local people worked hard, but he believes the foreign crew’s long experience is a huge difference-maker for the farm business. If someone thinks to replace foreign beekeeping workers by hiring only locals, Tomm doubts that approach is feasible.
“They work hard, and they know what to do,” he says. “They do the job like no one else could.”
View from a veteran Mexican beekeeper
For Jesus Alonzo Tapia Soria, 2020 was the fifth year he’s come to Canada to work seasonally for Mike DeJong at Busy Bee Farms.
“We usually get here in mid-March, but because of the border being closed, we had to wait a month,” says Soria, who previously worked 14 years for a farmer in Ontario.
As he describes his typical daily duties at Busy Bee Farm from Spring to Fall, it’s clear this is high-skill, high-judgment work. It includes checking hives and queens, sorting frames and feeding bees. Because Soria and other crew members have worked together for years, their individual skills are augmented by carefully coordinated teamwork.
“It saves a lot of time because Mike doesn’t have to explain what to do in a bee yard,” he says. “The Mexican and Filipino guys have a lot of experience.”
Soria notes that crew members appreciate the comfort and privacy available at Busy Bee Farm’s staff accommodation. It’s one more factor – along with a close-knit team and an attractive wage – that keeps him returning to Canada. In fact, 2021 will be his 20th year.
“I have come every year because it’s good for me and my family,” says Soria. “Everything that I have in Mexico is because I come to work in Canada.”
All in the family
The term Temporary Foreign Worker doesn’t come close to describing the tight-knit crew Reece Chandler has built at Scandia Honey over the past quarter-century.
As Canada’s largest honey operation, with 15,000 hives, the business relies on its consistent, highly skilled, team-oriented staff.
“All my staff is longer term,” says Chandler, who with wife Echo owns and operates this beekeeping operation located in Scandia, Alberta. “We have a lot of continuity with our crews from year to year. We bought the business 25 years ago, and one gentleman from Mexico has been with us for 24 of those years.”
During the key spring-to-autumn period, the operation employs 10 local people and 15 staff from outside Canada: from Mexico, the Philippines, Thailand, South Africa and New Zealand.
When asked about the viability of just hiring 25 Canadians instead, Chandler shakes his head.
For one thing, the needs of the two groups are complementary. Scandia’s foreign staff come to work for six to eight months. Many have farms back home and couldn’t be away for longer than that.
Some of Scandia’s local workforce are full-time and year-round. Others just work seasonally. A university student might want three or four months of work, less than what Scandia has available. Not only that, more than a few Canadians have been challenged by the work itself.
“This kind of work doesn’t suit everyone,” says Chandler. “It is hard, hot work, up to 40C in the summer sometimes, and of course, there are the bee stings. We’ve had people last a day. When we advertise locally, we sometimes get the same number of applicants as the jobs we’re filling.”
Chandler can sometimes be frustrated by people’s assumptions about the Temporary Foreign Worker program, in terms of pay, health care and housing. Round-trip airfare to Canada is paid by the employer, pay rates are not below Canadian minimum wage and health insurance is paid privately by the employer. In short, the Canadian taxpayer is not paying for anything.
From his early years owning Scandia Honey, Chandler favored hiring family members of his foreign staff. A staff member, for example, might recommend a brother, uncle or cousin to work the following season. Over time, the family connections multiplied, resulting in great team chemistry. Similar family connections are there among local staff too.
“When you have a family member join your team, you want that new person to succeed,” Chandler says. “They train each other really well, and of course for the people from outside Canada, having family around makes your off-hours more comfortable. We have great staff housing that is inspected once a year by the local health authority. We try to make it comfortable, so there’s a gym room and a movie room. When you’re also among family, well, people tell us that’s everything they need.”
Work in Canada means opportunity
Reece Chandler couldn’t run his business without the skill, experience and hard work of his foreign staff.
As long-time staff member German Vega Morales explains, people from Mexico appreciate the opportunity to work in Canada.
In 2020, COVID delayed his arrival in Canada to work at Scandia Honey. In 2021, he quarantined for two weeks after his arrival in Canada, with frequent COVID testing to minimize risk. Still, he believes it’s well worth it.
“In Mexico, we don’t have enough jobs,” Morales says. “This program helps people in Mexico who want to come for 6 or 7 months. We work to support our families, so this is a good opportunity for my family. Violence has been a big problem in Mexico for the past 40 years, and Canada is very safe.”
Meet beekeeping’s next generation
Family connections are important among Scandia Honey’s Canadian staff as well. Abe Neufeld got to know the operation as a child. His father Isaac is now in his 18th year with the Chandlers.
Neufeld (the younger) started working at Scandia during the summer season at age 14. He’s now been full-time for four years and is delighted with his career choice. He enjoys the teamwork and camaraderie of both the Canadian and foreign team members. Neufeld has even picked up a little Spanish, a side benefit of working at Scandia.
“It took some time to get used to the heat and how hard you work, and for sure, all the bee stings,” he says. “But I worked my way up. I did try some other jobs, but I prefer this because it feels like you’re working with family and the work is always different.”
Neufeld has observed that some Canadians don’t take to the work as readily as he did. Tough physical labour under frequently hot conditions, along with the certainty of painful bee stings, makes it difficult to find and keep new Canadian crew members.
“It’s not for everyone, but for some people, beekeeping just gets in your blood,” says Neufeld. “Every day when I come in, I’m happy to be here. I can go to sleep at night with the thought that I have a good job. I like telling people I’m a beekeeper, and how much I love my job.”