Potato farmers in need of dry weather, more labourers for harvest

Glenn Raferty, Erica Trainor, and Melissa Arbing, labourers at J&J Smallman Farms sort through potatoes, getting rid of any rocks or clay before the potatoes are stored in the warehouse. The potatoes are looking good this year, better than last year’s crop, but because of all the rain the region has received, the ground hasn’t been able to dry up enough for farmers to get out into the fields as much as they need to. Added to this is a labour shortage in the industry.   Jillian Trainor photo

Normally potato farmers in the province don’t mind a bit of rain, but that’s not the case right now.

The harvest season has just begun in the province and farmers are trying to dig up what they planted in the ground back in the spring. But, because of all the moisture in the ground they can only dig for two or three hours at a time, and that’s if they can make it out onto the fields.

“This morning we had a couple of trailers coming from New Glasgow, NS, and we were going to try and dig, but it’s too greasy,” said Morgan Smallman of J&J Smallman Farms, on the morning of Oct. 4. “We went in and we tried, and we got stuck and towed the truck off the field and called it a day.”

Mr Smallman said the mud is alright when you’re on a four wheeler, but not so much when you’re on a truck.

Part of the problem is the fact that the harvest season is so short, only about four or five weeks long, with people working an average day of 15 to 18 hours. 

Adding to the matter is the labour shortage the industry is currently experiencing. One of the main issues for some is finding drivers with a Class 1 or Class 3 license who aren’t already working full time. A Class 1 license authorizes a person to drive any truck-tractor and trailer with fifth wheel and air brakes, while a Class 3 license authorizes a person to drive any truck-trailer combination over 14,000 kg gross mass.

“Half of my drivers are retired people,” said Darryl Wallace of Wallace Family Farms Ltd. “You’ll find that throughout the industry, a lot of the drivers are older guys who are retired and just want to work part time. If you can grab one of those fellows, you’re very fortunate.”

Mr Wallace said he’s been pretty lucky. Wallace Family Farms has had the same crew come back year after year. They don’t all come back at once. One person works two weeks on, two weeks off in Alberta, and one comes in to work once he’s done fishing lobster for the season. He said you just kind of juggle to see what you can get and who you can keep, and that you try to use them as best you can while you have them, and hope they come back.

Mr Smallman said only being able to offer about four to five weeks of work isn’t very appealing to a lot of folks, especially if you’re one of the smaller farms.

“To get good skilled labour that understands what we’re trying to do here, and drive trucks, and pick out rock and stuff, it’s hard to get people who want to do that job,” he said. “For us, for example, when we’re trying to pick stuff off the belt, there’s less people there to catch rot if there’s any rot, and the more rocks and dirt that goes in, the harder it becomes to manage the storage. We have to make sure that those are dried up and not causing any issues.”

One way to mitigate the shortage in labour is by purchasing equipment like dirt eliminators, which can take out rocks and dirt, or increase the capacity of fans in the warehouse to help keep thing dry. If purchased secondhand, the equipment can cost between $25,000 to $70,000. New, the items would cost over $100,000.

Mr Smallman said he would rather pay a labourer.

The main focus right now is getting the potatoes dug up. Mr Wallace said the memories of last fall, where over 7,000 acres of potatoes were left in the ground because of an early and unexpected end to the season, are still fresh in people’s minds.

Mr Wallace said what’s really needed right now is a stretch of good weather. He said last Monday and part of Tuesday were good, but then they got a full day of rain, and when that happens, you don’t start until later the next day.

“Friday morning we dug for two or three hours, and then we got rained out and I had to call the crew back in Friday afternoon and we dug for two or three more hours and then got rained out again,” he said. “Who wants to come back in at three o’clock on a Friday afternoon after being sent home? It’s a tough thing to do, but they understand what we’re up against. Some of the crew was still here, working on machinery and that kind of stuff. I had to call my unloading crew, but it’s six or seven more loads that afternoon that would still be in the ground. Every load that we get out is one load behind us.”

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