2022 Virtual Orchard Meet-up Series: Webinar 1

Labour – Grower Experiences


Robert McGraw, Gilbert Orchards, Washington

Bobby Brown, Orchard Dale Fruit Company, New York

Steve Skelonc, Riverridge Produce Marketing, Michigan

Manus Boonzaier, Algoma Orchards, Ontario

Operation Overview

All growers stated similar notes based on their operation size and experience, encompassing where their employees are from, which program they utilize and how involved they are directly with their workers.

Larger operations, including Washington and Ontario, had levels of communication. Where regional/junior managers would be in direct contact with crew bosses/team leaders, which managed crews. Smaller operations had more direct contact with employees.

Q1. How do you manage your employees?

All growers agreed that the arrival, orientation, and training was of the utmost importance, but each had a different approach upon arrival.

In Washington, Gilbert Orchards would supply employees with a welcome kit, food and allowed the rest of the day to shower and get comfortable. They would then have a 2- or 3-day orientation, where examples of previous challenges that occurred onsite were gone over to make sure everyone understood who to connect with regarding issues. Robert stressed the importance of meeting every bus that comes to Gilbert Orchards and new employees would be asked to lean on veteran employees for support.

At Orchard Dale Fruit Company in New York, Bobby would have a similar approach where new employees would lean on veterans, but also mentioned the importance of variation throughout the season. For example, he stressed that during certain activities in the orchard, the need to be conducted in a timely manner, where communication is key to make sure jobs are completed efficiently and effectively.

Steve from Riverridge Produce Marketing based in Michigan, also hit on the points that Bobby addressed. Steve stated that training and comfort with the task at hand is of the utmost importance, usually spending an hour in training of the task at hand, whether that be thinning or feathering to make sure employees are comfortable. He mentioned that the language barrier can be difficult with his employees, as most are native Spanish speakers. He hopes to learn the language to better communicate.

In Ontario, Manus agreed with all of the points above, adding that they take employees to get groceries upon arrival. Crews include a bus driver for weekly grocery pickup, as it’s a small town so they get groceries in small groups. He also noted that he pays employees in advance upon arrival to get them started with grocery payments or to send home to families, rather than them asking for a loan.

Q2. Do women work on your operation? How do you make them comfortable?

Manus and Bobby stated that no women work on their operation. Steve also stated that they don’t have female employees but have family housing for those employees who bring their family with them. Robert said that there are various female employees among their operation, mostly cleaning houses and in supervisory roles. There are certain positions that they prefer women to do and have an open hiring system no matter the position.

Q3. Do you celebrate your employees’ culture and vice versa? How does vacation time work in your operation? Do you recruit employees?

All growers agreed that celebrating everyone’s cultures was incorporated in their operation in some sense, whether that be learning their language, celebrating birthdays and holidays, along with playing various sports, such as soccer. Manus stated that there are local groups in his area that work voluntarily and put together events for the workers throughout their time in Ontario.

Robert was quoted, “Culture is the beautiful part of growing apples. I do this job for the people, I love people.”

Q4. How does vacation time work in your operation?

Vacation was addressed differently based on each operation, but the major differences were shown between Washington and Ontario employers. Robert stated that if certain tasks are accomplished in a timely manner that employees can have a week or potentially a month off to go home. Although this is something that could be achieved in Ontario, the cost associated with flying home is a major deterrent for employees. A lot of employees also have the mindset that they want to stay and work. Manus noted that Algoma alternates weekends where employees don’t work two weekends in a row to give employees a break.

Q5. Do you recruit employees?

A large difference between the various U.S. employee programs and the employee program in Ontario is recruitment. U.S. growers have the capacity to recruit people from the same areas to keep families and cultures together, while in Ontario this is a limitation. The program that is being utilized in Canada has a wait time of roughly 3 – 5 years, where recruiting is not possible and depending on which country employees are from, there is a slim chance that they would know one another before employment.

Q5. Piece rate work or hourly rate work?

This discussion was split between growers, where Washington and Michigan growers pay piece rate, while Ontario and New York pay hourly. Nevertheless, the latter two operations want to trial piece rate compensation in the future. Manus’ justification was that incentivizing employees may increase work performance. Bobby agreed with this, but added that metrics on piece work for in-season tasks other than harvest (i.e. pruning, thinning) may be difficult to initialize. One strategy that Bobby mentioned is to incorporate auto-speeds for platforms based on the task at hand and see where his operation costs and efficiencies lie. Steve addressed the pruning piece work stating that employees are paid per cut, and that management usually determines a price per row before starting the task. His perspective is that if employee make more than hourly rate, they would still be out of the block sooner than an hourly employee. Robert had previously performed a trial comparing piece rate work to hourly work in a block where piece rate employee completed tasks sooner and cheaper. He calculated operation costs where piece rate work cost roughly $360 US an acre, while the hourly rate cost roughly $980 US an acre. Despite that, he stated that organization is key for piece rate work to be utilized efficiently and that everything needs to be figured out in advance.

Q5. What would you like to see in the current labour programs?

From an Ontario perspective, Manus suggested that a free flow between farms would be more ideal. This would be critical for all producers in Ontario because there is a wide array of commodities being grown and transitioning from farm to farm would allow for highly skilled workers to be available throughout the season. He also mentioned that easier access for workers to stay permanently would be more attractive for highly skilled labourers. One major point that needs to be addressed is the fact that many people don’t understand how important agriculture is and how highly skilled workers are. Another point added was that an increase in responsibility allows workers to have more ownership of their task and feel more appreciated in the operation.