Topics: Ethical Living, March 2021 | Society

How this family farm illustrates Canada’s vulnerable food system

Temporary foreign workers are the backbone of our agricultural industry and have been keeping it afloat during the pandemic

Avenash Sanatan of Trinidad and Tobago harvests produce at Lennox Farm in Melancthom, Ont. in summer 2020. He has worked at the farm for seven years. (Photo by Paul Bettings)

Farming has been in Brian French’s family for 100 years. He and his wife, Jeannette, grow rhubarb, sweet corn and various other vegetables and herbs on Lennox Farm, their 200-hectare property in Melancthon, Ont. Like many Canadian farmers, they don’t work the land alone. Since 1968, the family has hired men from Trinidad and Tobago to help plant, tend and harvest their crops. “These guys have been family. I’ve grown up with them my whole life,” says Brian.

Canada’s food system depends on workers from other countries. In Ontario in 2017, “temporary foreign workers” accounted for more than 40 percent of the jobs in the province’s agricultural sector. “I come here to support my family,” says Premchand Ramsaroop, a Trinidadian who has worked on the Frenches’ farm for more than a decade. “This is the land of opportunity.”

Photo by Paul Bettings

Everything changed in March 2020 when Trinidad and Tobago closed its borders due to COVID-19. The French family and a few local teens spent every day planting what they could. By July 2020, six workers were allowed to travel to Canada, but the damage was done. The Frenches had only planted half the usual English peas and 70 percent of the Brussels sprouts. But the biggest issue was not having help with the rhubarb, their largest crop, and they lost about 60 percent of their total wholesale income.

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The pandemic has exposed the fragility of the Canadian food system, as well as the racism and struggles workers from other countries can face here. When Brian posted a welcome message on Instagram to Ramsaroop and the other workers in July, he was accused of putting the community at risk of COVID-19, even though the workers quarantined for two weeks after they arrived.

The Frenches wish everyone would understand that the workers who grow and harvest food are the backbone of the agricultural industry. “If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be [farming],” says Brian.


Avenash Sanatan works on the Ontario farm of Brian and Jeannette French because work is hard to find in Trinidad. His dad also worked in Canada for 21 years. Sanatan was more concerned about contracting COVID-19 on the plane than at the farm. Once he arrived in July, he and the other workers quarantined for 14 days. (Photo by Paul Bettings)


When their border closed, the 11 men who had planned to work on Lennox Farm couldn’t travel. The Frenches, Brian’s father and a few local teens planted what they could. The family’s two eldest children also helped, though Emmett, 5, was too young. In July, six workers — Ramraj Basdeosingh, Schone Ganpat, Rampersad Owsarie, Premchand Ramsaroop, Avenash Sanatan and Anderson Rampersad — finally arrived. (Photo by Paul Bettings)


Ramraj Basdeosingh (left), 60, has been coming to Canada to farm since 1998, and he built a home in Trinidad and Tobago with the money he has earned. “They’re like family to us,” says Premchand Ramsaroop (right) of the Frenches. (Photo by Paul Bettings)


With fewer workers, Brian and Jeannette took only one day off between March and mid-December. Brian’s dad, Bill (left), helps as much as possible. But the farm still lost considerable income and food production in 2020. Schone Ganpat says he likes that the French family works “down in the dirt” alongside the staff. It’s the first time he’s seen a boss do that. (Photo by Paul Bettings)


“You come here, you work hard, you save your money…you make your family happy,” says Premchand Ramsaroop. However, Trinidad and Tobago made it hard for the workers to return home. Two left at the end of December, but the other four stayed at Lennox Farm, fearing they would not be allowed to return to Canada in the spring. (Photo by Paul Bettings)

This story first appeared in Broadview’s March 2021 issue with the title “Uncertain harvest.”

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