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COVID-19 Updates Features Harvesting
Clarifying gathering limits and U-Pick farms

A misinterpretation led to an Ontario U-Pick farm being fined for exceeding gathering limits, despite the activity falling under food production.


September 18, 2020
By Stephanie Gordon


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The Hamilton region orchard, which has 15-acres of apple U-Pick, was fined for exceeding gathering limits after a complaint was called in. Photo courtesy of Lucas Catalfamo.

A pick-your-own farm was fined for exceeding gathering limits this past weekend, prompting concerns over how a misinterpretation of outdoor gathering limits impact farm businesses.

The concerns come at time when the Ontario government is reducing gathering limits in some areas of the province seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases.

In an update on September 17, Premier Doug Ford said that starting September 18 gatherings are now limited to 25 people outdoors, and 10 people indoors in the Toronto, Ottawa and Peel regions. The new limits will not apply to places like restaurants, movie theatres, banquet halls, gyms and convention centres.

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Lucas Catalfamo runs The Apple Orchard in the Hamilton-Wentworth region. It is a 65-acre farm that is 100 per cent pick-your-own for apples, pears, sunflower, pumpkin, squash and gourd. Besides a small percentage of fruit that is harvested by staff for the on-farm store, most of the fruit is harvested through U-Pick visitors.

On September 12, a Hamilton region bylaw officer issued two tickets to the farm for failing to comply with the province’s Reopening Ontario Act after a complaint was called in. Catalfamo explains that they were issued two tickets at $880 each for exceeding the 100-person gathering limit. There were approximately 350 visitors on the farm at the time.

“We have trails and sunflower fields and everyone is spread out,” Catalfamo says. On their farm, 15 acres are dedicated for the apple U-Pick, 5.5 acres for pumpkin, and a little more than 12 acres for sunflowers. In the apple orchard, trees are spaced out within three to four feet of each other and there is about 16 to 18 feet of space between rows.

Picking fruit isn’t a social gathering

Ontario’s gathering limits apply to “higher risk settings and activities where people congregate,” such as wedding receptions, live shows, sporting events, tour services, among others. Pick-your-own farms aren’t explicitly listed, but they also do not fall under social gatherings.

“We’re not a social gathering . . . we’re harvesting our crop, whether it’s one method of having offshore workers here, or mechanically harvesting, or bringing in the general public to harvest and putting food directly into Canadian [consumers’] hands,” Catalfamo says.

The Berry Growers of Ontario and Ontario Apple Growers also reinforce that pick-your-own farms fall under agriculture and food production and are essential.

“When we were working with [Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs] and regional health units, our emphasis was that pick-your-own was a harvesting activity and thus part of the list of essential services in relation to food,” explained Kevin Schooley, executive director of the Berry Growers of Ontario, in an email. “What I tell our growers is that when they communicate with their health unit to make sure they emphasize harvest and that it is not a social gathering.”

“What I tell our growers is that when they communicate with their health unit to make sure they emphasize harvest and that it is not a social gathering.”

Kelly Ciceran, general manager of Ontario Apple Growers, said that their position is the same. “It’s our understanding that food production and the supply chain are essential . . . [pick-your-own] is food harvesting, production and the sale of food, and it’s outdoors,” Ciceran said over the phone.

She adds that Ontario Apple Growers have been upfront in their messaging that farmers need to follow all the guidelines put forth by their public health unit and the Ministry of Health.

Implementing extra COVID-19 measures

The Ontario Apple Growers and Berry Growers of Ontario both produced COVID-19 guidance documents for pick-your-own farms. You can access the Guidelines for Apple Pick-Your-Own Operations here and the COVID-19 Guidance for Berry Growers and Pick-Your-Own Operations here.

“Our guidelines focused on limiting contact points with customers and farm staff as well as promoting physical distancing. We also encouraged hand washing in and out of the field,” Schooley with the Berry Growers explained in the email, touching briefly on what’s included in the multi-page guidance document.

To adapt the U-Pick season to COVID-19 guidelines, many growers marked rows, split rows, and only accommodated as many customers as they could while adhering to the two metre physical distancing rule.

Catalfamo explains that their farm has spit guards for staff on cash, field markers and dividers, hand sanitizer stations throughout, and staff for crowd control. He also added that they bought an additional wagon so they could continue to socially distance customers while using wagons as picking aids – helping bring people back with heavy bags of fruit.

“We’re following all those guidelines and we have a lot of our [regular] facilities that aren’t running. We really are trying to simply get our crop off and continue to hand food to Canadians in the safest way possible,” Catalfamo says.

“We’re following all those guidelines and we have a lot of our [regular] facilities that aren’t running. We really are trying to simply get our crop off and continue to hand food to Canadians in the safest way possible,” Catalfamo says.

Reversing the ticket

Catalfamo reached out to the Apple Growers of Ontario, Ontario Farm Fresh Marketing Association, and even his MPP Donna Skelly, for clarification on the ticket.

“Everyone has been supportive,” Catalfamo shares. “The biggest thing is we just need clarity . . . it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

“Everyone has been supportive,” Catalfamo shares. “The biggest thing is we just need clarity . . . it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Lauran Sabourin, the communications director for MPP Skelly, said that Catalfamo’s issue was raised during a regularly scheduled meeting with the Premier’s office on September 17 and it’s now in the hands of the Premier’s office and the Ministry of Health.

Labour shortages

For Ontario growers who were short on labour this year, pick-your-own harvesting became more important.

For a 100 per cent pick-your-own farm, Catalfamo says he was worried about having enough people to pick the fruit when they want to if limits are imposed.

“With 100 people, we’re not going to pick our crop. We’re going to leave 60 to 70 per cent on the trees,” Catalfamo says, adding that for some apple varieties they only have a three to four week picking window.

However, because U-Pick farms fall under food production, they’re allowed to continue as long as all the health guidelines are met and physical distancing can be maintained.

“We need to create a short template, because the next three weekends are so vital for apple growers and pick-your-own [farms],” Catalfamo says. “If we don’t get our crop off now, we’re going to have huge problems in the orchard with large amounts of rotting fruit.”

While pick-your-own operations fit under food production, Catalfamo explains he’s bringing attention to the issue to help other U-Pick farms who might find themselves in similar situations with bylaw officers who misinterpret how the gathering limits apply to farms.