Five Hundred Feet From The Road

In the fields behind the farm stands, a force of migrant workers forms the backbone of our produce industry. For most of us, however, awareness of their lives remains a background blur.

Locally grown produce is a hallmark of summer in Ontario, and the family farms that grow it are the pride of this province. But the story deepens, if you walk just a little way into the nearby fields where the food is grown. That’s where migrant workers from faraway places do much of the essential labour that puts food on Ontario tables. On one small farm near Cobourg, you could say that the borders of Canada and Mexico meet in a field about 500 feet back from the road.

The Burnham Family Farm is known throughout Northumberland County, owned and run by a respected local family with roots in the area since well before Confederation. The family’s farm market along Highway 2 just west of Cobourg is a familiar place to get farm-fresh goods, from spring through fall, starting with asparagus and rhubarb, continuing through strawberry season, and extending into the fall when the pumpkin patch comes alive for Thanksgiving and Hallowe’en.


For six months this year, you’ll find Fernando (not his real name) working the fields for his seventeenth season, along with three fellow farm workers from Mexico, two in their first and one in his second year with the Burnhams. The “amigos,” as Anne Burnham calls them, will be out with her husband Paul, cutting asparagus, or pulling rhubarb. They may also be pruning in the apple orchard, or hauling weeds, or hoeing the freshly planted strawberry fields. Later in the season, working side by side with the family, they’ll tend and pick the strawberries, sweet corn, apples, pumpkins, and just about everything else the Burnhams grow and sell. Without the migrant workers, maintaining that family farm – let alone running it as a business – would be nearly impossible.

For Paul and Anne Burnham, the memories are fresh from last spring, when COVID kept Fernando and the rest of the migrant workers at home in Mexico through asparagus season. Shorthanded, the family had to seek local labour, and when that didn’t fill the gaps, they picked the crop themselves. It’s not that they minded the work. It’s that there’s always too much of it to do, and farmers like the Burnhams say it’s difficult to find enough local labour to do it. That’s why Canada’s migrant worker programs exist in the first place.

Since the late 1960s, programs like Ontario’s FARMS (Foreign Agricultural Resource Management Services) have matched migrant workers with farms that require their labour. Anybody who’s spent a little time travelling through Watershed country, with its orchards, market gardens and vineyards, will know that migrant labour is an essential part of farm life.

In this part of the province, Mexicans, Trinidadians and Jamaicans comprise significant resident minorities for part of the year. But there is little integration with the community at large. From time to time, stories might emerge from across Ontario of workers living in substandard conditions or fighting alongside advocates for access to proper health care and other social support Canadian citizens take for granted. For most of us, however, awareness of migrant workers and their lives remains a background blur at best.

Fernando has been coming to work on the Burnham family farm for seventeen of the past twenty-one years. He’s never worked on another farm in Canada, and doesn’t want to. He appreciates the respect with which he and his fellow workers are treated. The accommodations are good and the setup is comfortable. He’s heard enough stories from other workers to count his blessings. Fernando speaks highly of the Burnhams, even when they’re not around (and they insist he should be interviewed away from them, so he can speak freely). There’s a charming familiarity to the understanding he and Paul share in the fields, however basic their verbal communication may be. Fernando knows that’s not something to take for granted, and he’s grateful.

Fernando appreciates the respect with which he and his fellow workers are treated at the Burnhams’. He’s heard enough stories from other workers to count his blessings.


Still, the work is far from easy. In the weeks of mid-to late May, with temperatures already heading for the high twenties, Fernando and his co-workers are picking asparagus in dry and barren-looking fields.

It’s easy enough to pick a few stalks but picking them for hours on end is another matter entirely. Anyone who doesn’t know farming could be forgiven for assuming the asparagus plot is an empty field: grey clods of dry earth with brown stubble protruding, row on dusty row, until you look down and spot the eager green shoots. These must be sized up, quickly measured for height against the rivets on the side of a sharp knife, then in a swift motion, sliced off about half an inch below the soil. While you’re bent over, tug with one hand and slice with the other – one, two, perhaps three in a row – then straighten up and place the asparagus in the bucket rigged around your waist, all the while moving ahead two steps and bending down to pick the next bunch. Repeat for another bundle, and another, and another; for an hour; for a morning; for the day. For weeks on end until asparagus season is over, varying the work from time to time with rhubarb-picking.

Then there are strawberries to be planted: the four amigos riding backward on a rig pulled behind Paul’s tractor. He drives, while they carefully place strawberry seedlings into a conveyor which drives them down into the soil at regular intervals. Planting is the easy part. When that’s done, the workers take up hoes, trudging up and down the newly planted rows to tuck dirt carefully around any exposed roots of the tender seedlings.

It’s hot, it’s dirty, it’s hard on the back. And according to Fernando, picking strawberries is even harder than planting them. It’s a tradition for locals to spend a sunny June morning at a U-pick once or twice a year. But for those who buy their strawberries already picked, Fernando and his colleagues may spend up to six or seven hours on the busiest days, on their knees in the fullness of the midsummer sun.

It should go without saying that for migrant workers, who are far from home, frequently limited in the local language and dependent on their bosses for the necessities of life, it’s not a romantic situation.


The fact is, much as he appreciates his situation with the Burnhams, Fernando would rather be on the Mexican side of that imaginary Canada-Mexico border. If he could, he’d pack it in to be with his wife and five kids, ranging from 12 to 22, plus a couple of grandkids, aging parents, and a large extended family living closely together in Mexico. Fernando is forty-five, which is often considered young these days. But a lifetime of labour puts the privilege of feeling young in perspective.

The Burnhams work hard to build their version of the Canadian dream. Fernando, working alongside them for the better part of the last two decades, didn’t come here for the same dream. Nor did he come to make a new life in Canada, as the ancestors of many settler families did. He came for the work, and the wage – and for the opportunity to better his life back home.

Fernando’s precise earnings are a private matter, but legally, migrant workers in Canada must be paid minimum wage or above, depending on the nature of the job and their experience. They must be provided with decent accommodations and access to clothing, groceries, and the necessities of life. Fernando has an OHIP card and pays into the Canada Pension Plan; he has the right to access Ontario health care and to draw his CPP pension once he reaches sixty. These are the basics, from a Canadian point of view. They are not substantial enough to attract a local labour supply, but they are enough to draw people like Fernando from Mexico, year after year, to an unfamiliar environment, far from home, to work six-and-a-half days a week for six months on end. The work is hard; the days are long. And for many, the risks are real: exploitation, injury, illness, loneliness. But the rewards are real too, and Fernando keeps coming back.

It’s problematic to draw too pleasant a picture of farm life, at any time, in any place. Farming is a precarious business that is dependent on uncontrollable variables regardless of what’s being grown or how big the operation is. It should go without saying that for migrant workers, who are far from home, frequently limited in the local language, and dependent on their bosses for the necessities of life, it’s not a romantic situation.


It’s hard to say whether the relationship between the Burnhams and Fernando is a typical one. Paul and Anne are friendly, caring, and protective of Fernando’s well-being, while he reciprocates not just with hard work, but with appreciation and affable humour. It’s a relationship defined by mutual respect, something that can be easily lost if there are imbalances in power, prestige, and privilege. When people work side by side, on the land, for days and months and years on end, a unique connection may grow. That’s happening at the Burnhams’ place, especially between Paul and Fernando.

Paul and Anne both learned basic Spanish to communicate with their workers. Neither of them claims fluency, and truth be told, the lingua franca of the fields is Spanglish, accompanied by whatever gestures may be necessary to make the point. They once surprised Fernando with a visit on a family trip to Mexico, and he grins at the memory of them showing up with their phrasebooks. That can’t be a common situation. Farmers are famously practical, of course. Paul says treating workers right “just makes good sense”, if you’re wanting them to do good work for you. Still, not everybody treats migrant workers right. And inequity invites exploitation.


It’s actually difficult for farm workers like Fernando to become immigrants. You’d think they would check all the boxes for ideal new Canadians, and it’s hard to imagine anyone who’d make a better citizen than Fernando. With the government’s current aggressive immigration targets, what more would he need to do to prove it? Ironically though, migrant workers – hired for their discipline, stability, work ethic, and adaptability, people who labour year after year in Canada – are far from the front of the line when it comes to a path to citizenship.

For his part, Fernando is philosophical about the idea of immigration. Although he finds Canadian society easy enough to navigate and finds the people of Cobourg “very friendly” to him and his coworkers, he admits he doesn’t really know what it means to be Canadian. The weather – “very variable!” – is his least favourite thing about being here, and his six-month stints haven’t even included winter. He thinks a little snow is nice, but he wouldn’t like a lot of it for months on end.

In fact, by the time six months have gone by and he’s been connected to family back home only by phone calls, the last thing Fernando wants to do is stay here longer. For a few years now his family has begged him not to return to work in Canada, wishing he would take it a bit easier. And although his twelve-year-old daughter might be keen, he’s not sure he could convince his wife and extended family to pull up stakes and move to Canada even if they had the opportunity.

Still, Fernando keeps returning to Canada, back to Burnham’s farm, back to the asparagus and the rhubarb and the strawberries. Fernando has always worked hard in Mexico too, mostly in farming and construction (with occasional, more lucrative stints as a golf caddy), but the rewards are not the same. Asked how long it might take to earn back home what he makes here in six months, he simply shakes his head. “You’d never see it,” he says. “It just wouldn’t happen.”

Ironically, the low wage of the migrant worker in Canada, that same wage that won’t draw and keep local labour working on a farm, is enough to endanger migrant workers from Mexico due to their relative wealth. Fernando is exceedingly cautious; he wouldn’t allow identifiable headshots for this story, or for social media posts. He has asked to be called by an assumed name because he is afraid of being targeted for extortion back home.


What are we missing, when we drive by the farm stand or stop in for our asparagus and rhubarb, say a few friendly words and then drive away, feeling good about nature’s bounty? What’s happening, five hundred feet back from the road, where folks from faraway places are bent to pick the food we enjoy? In Fernando’s case, what’s happening is a calculated effort to improve his family’s lot, literally with the fruits of his own labour. Not by emigrating, but by simply going where the work is.

Too often, the person from “somewhere else” is viewed as a risk to those of us fortunate enough to be here already. But it’s Fernando who’s leaving his family and boarding a plane to fly thousands of miles to a foreign country during a pandemic. He’s the one who literally signs a contract to say he will work hard, then dutifully return back home. He’s the one putting himself in somebody else’s hands, on somebody else’s land, for half a year at a time. And when asked what he thinks migrant workers should receive, besides a decent wage and accommodation, his answer is three simple words: “Un tratamiento digno.” To be treated with dignity. It’s far from a foregone conclusion.

In the past year, we’ve all become more aware of global interconnectedness, thanks to COVID. Fernando and the other workers couldn’t get into Canada last season and suffered financially as a result. Canadian farmers who struggled to find the labour to harvest their crops, were hit hard in turn. Consumers, accustomed to abundance in a globalized world, may even have raised an eyebrow as prices rose in reaction. We all heard about migrant workers on the news again, as it became a priority for various levels of government to get the workers back.

Fernando and his family, Paul and Anne and theirs, the amigos, the customers at the store and the market, the workers across the county and across the country, the politicians, the bosses – good and bad – the activists and the advocates, even the operatives of the drug cartels of Mexico are interwoven into the complex matrix of interacting forces, spinning outward from the farmland, and the farm stand, in tendrils of energy that encircle the world. It’s called globalization, but what’s truly amazing about the defining economic phenomenon of our time is just how localized it is.

The sign by the side of the road says “Fresh Fruit and Vegetables.” Between the county road and the four-lane highway lies a swath of undulating land, fertile and lovely. It’s a family farm, a place of pride and beauty, of hard work and sometimes hard luck. There is more to it than meets the eye, and more than one family working the soil, joined by the toil. Here, along the Canada-Mexico border – just about five hundred feet back from the road.

Story by:
David Newland

Photography by:
Matthew Botha

[Summer 2021 features]