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Resilient Farmers vs. COVID-19

In this month's Country Guide, we continue our series on family farm resiliency. Here’s how family and community relationships powered these farmers through the pandemic, getting seed in the ground and creating a resolve for the future.

The Fox family, with son Corey and wife Jessica and their children Rylee and Blair, Bruce and Monna and daughter Jennifer. (Missing, daughter Amanda.) Photo: Deb Deville

In the battle against the pandemic gripping our industry and reaching across the globe, the resiliency of farmers continues to be showcased. In our last article, we explored the innovations employed by our ag community that demonstrated their ability to adapt and get the job done. “Another year, another challenge”, was the basic theme of what we heard from the families we spoke with. Another strong commonality that emerged was relationships and how the strength of those relationships shined during times of hardship. That is where we begin this month’s article: exploring relationships that were tested whether with family, labourers, professionals, or the community.

“The commitment level of farmers is huge. It’s driven by generations before you and carrying on a legacy,” says Bruce Fox, a fourth-generation farmer in Ontario. That level of commitment is what both tested and strengthened his relationships with his family during the early days of quarantine. This spring, Bruce found himself with his two adult daughters back under his roof. “I jokingly said to them one day ‘there must be some kind of COVID relief for men dealing with all these women!’”, he laughed. “Even our dog is female so all of the sudden I had four females living with me.” All kidding aside though, he says, “it was wonderful.” He is a typical farmer who does not depend on much outside labour and noted that “if I wanted to get a big job done, I found myself with lots of help.”

While family relationships are perhaps the ones we feel are tested the most during a pandemic, many farmers we spoke with say it was their overall community who they leaned on and who helped them through a challenging planting season. At Burnham Family Farms, a vegetable and crop operation, matriarch Anne Burnham shares that not only did traditional farm people offer to help, but “urban people” as well. The Burnham’s had one returning worker from Mexico who was able to arrive safely, but three others were not. While they were able to secure some offshore help through a farm transfer, they were still short on their cropping workforce. That is when the community really stepped in. “Some were teachers whose job was altered, and they saw opportunities to get out of the house and do something,” Anne says. “There was one person who said ‘I just must get out of the house and do something physical. I just cannot be in here anymore. I cannot go to the gym. I just want to go outside and have some me time when I am working with my body.’” In all, five “non-traditional” farming members helped the Burnham’s this spring to salvage their crops, harvest asparagus and prepare the fields. “They did very well. They all stuck with it and did an excellent job. We are really grateful to people who are willing to help us when times are tight,” expressed Anne.

We know similar stories took place right across our country this year. Others spoke of high school students whose parents did not want them inside all day, so they were out in the field planting this spring instead. As much of our migrant workforce faced quarantine or travel restrictions, communities pulled together to help one another. For most families we spoke to, helpers spent an average of three to four weeks in the field. One farmer remarked that the high schoolers really brought a different energy to the farm this year. “For most of them it was their first job and they were so anxious to just do something. It was that enthusiasm that really helped.”

Testing of relationships also goes beyond our family and immediate community. How we work with professionals, suppliers, and customers also plays a critical role in ag resiliency. Stu MacMillan, of Stu MacMillan Seeds, representing Pioneer Seeds, found himself navigating a new way of supporting his customers. “Normally, when issues arise, I will see clients face-to-face and explain the situation,” he said. “And we did have issues this spring…. I felt if I had been able to go out, I would have gone out to their kitchens or shops, to talk, and look them in the face and that would have helped to resolve things much quicker.” However, after a couple of weeks, Stu says both his staff and customers found a rhythm. “I did find I was way more efficient being in the office chatting on the phone Another challenge presented to Stu and his team was the dependency customers had on him for timely seed delivery. “One of my guys said to me, ‘we’ve got to get things out because if one of us gets sick, we are shut down.’ He was absolutely right,” Stu adds. His customers also felt that urgency. “Normally during that busy time of year, you call for delivery, you can sometimes be asked to delay or postpone depending on the customers schedule. This year, both my team and our customers knew the importance of getting their seed orders in their shed as quickly as possible… if one of us had gotten sick, the logistics could have been nightmarish!” Adapting to these communication and delivery changes required adjustments for both dealers and their customers, but MacMillan felt his customers were satisfied and their needs were met. “I think the agricultural community in general said, ‘you know what, we’ve got to get this done’. As farmers often do, they put their heads down and said we will do this safely, but we have to get this done.”

That sense of community relationships and lending skills to one another came from all ages and all backgrounds. From volunteers as young as 10 and as old as 86 making masks for workers to wear, to urban professionals suddenly laid off with time on their hands and looking to contribute. For the Burnham’s, a relationship with a close friend became invaluable when she was temporarily laid off from her marketing job. She was able to apply those skills to help their farm, and other businesses nearby and create online shops to bring their businesses to an e-commerce platform. Anne’s daughter Kate, who runs the family’s vegetable, fruit, and bakery market, says her friend was just looking to use her skills and help. “The attitude of farming and that idea of resiliency in our community isn’t just present within us,” she says. “It’s everywhere.” Other family friends made masks for their employees and she felt everyone was playing a role in helping one another. “I hope what comes out of this pandemic, is a greater feeling of community and helping each other out when times are really rough,” she says. “I just hope that that continues on.”


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