SASKATOON - A company is offering to help farmers cut through the "paperwork jungle" of the federal temporary foreign worker program to hire the labourers they need.
Farmers of North America says there is a chronic shortage of skilled and unskilled labour in almost every sector of agriculture from the grain fields of Saskatchewan to the cattle feedlots of Alberta to the orchards of British Columbia and Ontario.
For a fee of about $4,000 a person, the Saskatoon-based firm says it will work with an international recruiter who has long experience with the federal program to help farmers hire help from areas that include Ukraine, Eastern Europe and Ireland.
The company's pitch is that it can get workers more quickly and with less hassle than farmers who deal directly with Ottawa.
"It is a difficult process. Farmers are busy. They don't really have the time to be doing all that paperwork," vice-president Bill Martin said.
"If you don't have that labour, you can't increase your farm size or you can't operate efficiently."
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture estimates the country is short about 30,000 seasonal and longer-term farm workers.
Farmers of North America said it began its service this week after speaking with farmers frustrated with the requirements of the federal program, including the need to advertise locally for help before seeking to hire someone from abroad.
Gerald Schiltroth, a grain, oilseed and pulse farmer near Ridgeland, Sask., said he gave up on filing his own application looking for combine operators, truck drivers and yard labour. He said the federal government told him to repost the ads for the jobs three times. One person he hired from New Brunswick wasn't qualified and didn't last a week.
"At that point I said, 'Screw it. We are done.'"
The problem, Schiltroth said, is that fewer Canadians want to work in agriculture or are leaving farms to work at higher paying jobs in the energy sector or in cities.
Schiltroth said the service being offered by the Farmers of North America is expensive, but it may be worth paying the fee if it means he will actually get workers who can do the job.
He hasn't made his mind up yet as he ponders his labour needs for the next crop year.
"I think sometimes it is better to pay the extra bucks and get it done."
What he would prefer is a federal program that is easier to use, he said.
"I really think they are trying to make it so none of us will hire foreign labourers, because politically it will be easier for them to handle that."
ILC, a company working with Farmers of North America, has already posted job offers on its website seeking foreign workers for Canadian grain and livestock farms.
The post seeks English-speaking agriculture college graduates or people with at least one year of farm-work experience.
The grain farm job description says workers will operate, repair and maintain agricultural machinery and should be able to apply herbicides and fertilizers.
Livestock farm workers must be able to care for cattle and pigs, including giving animals antibiotic injections.
Salaries range from $14 to $34 an hour, depending on experience, minus deductions for accommodation.
Job interviews are to be held in Ukraine this month through to January.
Employment Canada acknowledges there is a shortage of agricultural workers, but encourages farmers to apply for the people they need without paying a third party. The ministry says the best way for farmers to reduce the paper burden and speed up applications is to use the government's website.
"Employers do not need to use the services of a third-party representative or recruiter to apply," Pamela Wong, a ministry spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
"Employers who choose to use these types of services are required to cover all recruitment costs related to the hiring of the temporary foreign worker."
The ministry suggests farmers who want to use such a service should check with Citizenship and Immigration Canada to verify that they are dealing with a qualified representative.
The federal government made changes to the temporary foreign worker program this summer over concerns some employers were using it to replace Canadian workers with cheaper help.
The changes included higher application fees for employers and a questionnaire designed to ferret out whether an employer is trying to replace Canadian workers. The requirements for employers to advertise job openings in Canada was also made more stringent.
None of the changes applies to agriculture workers.
Ron Bonnett, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, said, overall, the temporary foreign worker program has been a success, especially for short-term seasonal workers.
Farmers who need longer-term help must decide if it is worth it to hire a company to help them rather than applying to Ottawa themselves, he suggested.
"Whether it is good or bad, I think that depends on the farm situation and how comfortable the farmers themselves feel about going through the process."
— By John Cotter in Edmonton