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Brookfield Gardens “fights” to have well-trained employees

to have well-trained employees


April 23, 2008
By Kathy Birt

Topics

Growing 150 acres of carrots and a
plethora of other vegetables, Eddie Dykerman of Brookfield Gardens in
Brookfield, P.E.I., believes it is essential to have well-trained
employees.

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Brookfield Gardens farm of P.E.I. struggles to get affordable training for their employees. Part-owner Eddie Dykerman said it’s easier and more economical for unemployed people to get the necessary training than for managers to find instruction for existing employees. Photo by Kathy Birt

Growing 150 acres of carrots and a plethora of other vegetables, Eddie Dykerman of Brookfield Gardens in Brookfield, P.E.I., believes it is essential to have well-trained employees.

With 25 workers to contend with at peak season, Dykerman and his brother and business partner, Gerald, are eager to offer training to employees, but this doesn’t always work out.

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“We harvest the carrots with a harvester and all other vegetables are picked by hand,” said Eddie.

To do this, he requires two crews to pick vegetables and three supervisors. “We have Gordon Allerston in charge of a crew in the summer time, and my son, Craig, is out in the fields too. Mike MacKinnon operates the harvester and looks after the truck drivers during the carrot harvest.”

Hence, the operation needs to have well-trained supervisors and truck drivers to help keep things running smoothly.

A few years back, Eddie served on the Board of Directors of the Agriculture Human Resources Development Council (AHRDC). The council offers a variety of farm labour courses and the vegetable grower indicates that he “fought” to have not only his employees trained, but also employees on other Island farms.

“I wasn’t always pleased with the results.”

Some of the Dykerman brothers’ employees have taken truck driving and supervisor courses and at least seven or eight Brookfield gardens employees are certified pesticide applicators. But, in most cases, this 25-year-old vegetable growing business has had to lay-off people to get the necessary training. In fact, for some employees, the Dykerman’s business has had to bear the cost themselves.

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Eddie Dykerman, part owner of Brookfield Gardens, shows off some of the vegetables produced on the farm. The operation has struggled finding trained staff to keep things running smoothly. Photo by Kathy Birt 

“I have even had to hire trained truck drivers rather than pay to train one of my own (employees). It’s less expensive in the long run.”

On the other hand, Wendy Weatherbie, executive director at the council, indicates that during the past year, the council has offered a 3A (potato) truck-driving course but only two or three people showed
interest.

“We need at least 10 people to run a course,” she said, adding, “These courses are not funded through AHRDC. We set up the courses for farm labour but funds come from Human Resources Skills Development Canada (HRSDC).”

Both she and Angela Campbell, who was acting executive director while Weatherbie was on maternity leave, indicate that it seems to have been a tough year for Island farms, and requests for farm-labour training were at an all-time low.

“Typically in history, training farm labour was considered a luxury in tough times,” said Campbell.

Weatherbie echoes that opinion, stating that if any participant had to contribute money for the course, it would not be possible while on Employment Insurance (E.I.). This would make it essential that the farmer chip in to assure staff has the training they need to have to enhance the future of the farm.

And according to Eddie Dykerman, he has done just that.

“As an employer, I pay into the E.I. system,” he said. “I hand-pick employees who are interested in training and advancing and, in some cases, I have to pay the whole shot.”

He adds the opportunities are there but access to the training is limited. While serving on the board, he said eligibility for funding of employed farm labour to upgrade their skills was lacking. “Unemployed people reap the benefits (of training) and, I presume, it’s a national problem.”

Shirley Pierce, director of communications at HRSDC in Charlottetown, defends the logic by pointing out the funding for training farm labour, or any industry, comes directly from the E.I. fund. “Eligibility for training courses does require participants to be on an E.I. claim or to have been on (a claim) in the past three years.”

She said government’s focus is the unemployed, the idea being to allow workers to upgrade their skills while receiving benefits, ultimately becoming more qualified for employment.

But Dykerman has his own opinions on how E.I. money should be spent. He emphasizes that fully employed people pay into the E.I. fund. “There’s a huge (E.I.) surplus; either rates should drop or training to employed people should be offered.”

He points out that, financially, to send an employee on a truck driving course, Brookfield Gardens has to pay for the course, pay the workers wages while on the course, and pay someone to replace the worker as well.

“Whereas, if that employee was on E.I., that course would be paid for. I think it would be far better to upgrade the employee’s skills while still on the job.”

He said when Unemployment Insurance changed to E.I., he thought the change meant keeping people employed, rather than unemployed.
“If my employees can get more training, they become better employees and could go from seasonal to full-time.

“If I can get an employee trained in welding, I can keep that employee in the shop in the winter to repair machinery.”

Dykerman believes he and his brother are rare in the vegetable business in that they employ all local people. “Some farms are hiring off-shore labour.”

Dykerman said the problem of access to transportation has also surfaced for farm labour in recent years. “We may have younger workers who are not going on to university. These people could never pay the $4,000 a year (auto) insurance required of that age group, so they don’t own a car.”

He adds that some of these people may live in the city or in surrounding communities and always have difficulty getting a drive to work. “This will affect farm labour drastically in the coming years.”

Despite these existing difficulties, Brookfield Gardens functions well, with established local and global markets for their vegetable crops. The bulk of the 150 acres of carrots grown are shipped to places like Puerto Rico, Jamaica, plus Boston, Mass., and other New England states.

Dykerman believes treating employees how he would like to be treated is a top consideration on the farm. “I was an employee before I became an employer and I remember the good and the bad,” he said.

The new kid coming in is just as important as the long-time guy, added Dykerman. Brookfield Gardens sticks to a schedule and strives to keep regular hours for their people. During harvest, an extra day is added to the work-week. But, notes Dykerman, “We respect that our employees have lives outside work. By the same token, if we did hire off-Island people and they look for longer hours, we are flexible.”

He says they stick to industry standards, offering holiday pay and a benefit package for longer-term employees. “We try to offer them what they would get in any other business or industry.”

The vegetable grower indicates there is the possibility of a benefit
package coming on-stream for all farm workers. “If you want to get good employees, these things have to be implemented.”