Resilient farmers vs. COVID-19: Producing good outcomes
As we researched this series on resiliency during the COVID-19 pandemic, did families ever shine! During some of the biggest challenges of our generation, we saw the agriculture community step up, and we saw the theme of family resiliency appear time and again. Our clients were eager to tell us the good, and yes, the bad and the ugly, but the main take-home message is how their family bonds have been strengthened by commitment to working towards a common goal.
We spoke with several families over the course of a few months for this article and found farming families faced the same challenges everyone else did. They confronted feelings of anxiety, panic and uncertainty, and all without the usual support of friends and co-workers.
For this segment of our Country Guide series, names will be withheld. We felt we needed to do this for farmers to talk to us about the very private nature of their family relationships and how the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on them.
Throughout our conversations, one common story was that many children who had planned to return to university instead remained on the farm, where they showed a renewed interest in the ag industry. This also translated to more help at home than farmers were used to, which filled a critical role during spring planting.
Another theme was how many successors stepped up to the plate. Although years ahead of the transition they anticipated, they were eager to help their family farms through the ever-changing challenges presented by the pandemic
At one agribusiness in central Ontario, a son who was home from university found himself without his spring job at a golf course. At the same time, after a brief shutdown to re-evaluate a safe opening and move product to an e-commerce offering, his father needed help. They had worked together on and off over the years, but never in a full-time capacity.
One day, the son told his mother how much he enjoyed working with his “old man.” Although the golf course eventually did call him to come to work there, he declined the opportunity in favour of continuing to work in the family business, and it turned out great for both father and son.
“There are days when he has his moments and I have my moments, but thankfully he is like his mother and pretty even keeled. I have the temper once in a while! But overall, I think it has worked out well,” the father says. “He works independently, and I love that. I don’t have to tell him what to do.” Although it is a little uncertain whether or not this will stick as a full-time career option for the son, who is currently taking college courses online for music, the father is thankful for the time together this past spring and summer and the opportunity to appreciate the maturity in his son.
As he told us, “These blessings come to us in funny ways, don’t they?”
Resiliency is built in different ways, and for other families we spoke with, desperation prompted their child’s involvement. “No one expected spring break to be as long as it was,” says one farmer in northern Ontario. “My son came home when his college first shut down this spring and he’s still here!”
He is one of thousands of college and university students who found themselves re-adjusting to life back on the home farm after leaving it years earlier. The challenges of those adaptations were felt by both sides. Farming parents were scrambling to secure their workforce and deal with challenging weather conditions, while their kids were struggling to stay motivated for online learning.
Or, in some cases, they had their programs halted altogether. “It sucked!” his son shared with me. “At no point was it part of my plan to come back here.”
While some kids stepped up to help their parents out, others, such as this young man, struggled with the idea of being back in the field. When he began his second year of college, in fall 2019, he had felt that he was starting to make a path for himself. His vision did not involve farming; he was training instead to be a mechanical engineer. “Lifestyle up here is not for me; it never has been,” he confided. His parents perceived him as an obvious solution to their lack of help and struggled with his lack of desire to do so. “We had no help and a limited timeline,” the father shared. After some strong words, the son did join in the fields to help with planting. “We got it done, reluctantly, but he did help me out,” but they also learned something. “Both of us were relieved though when our help arrived a couple weeks later,” the father chuckles.
Another family we spoke with inspired us with the resiliency of their daughter, who jumped ahead years in their farm transition plan when her mother’s health became jeopardized by working in the fields. Everyone noticed the strength of leadership demonstrated by their daughter, who stepped up without hesitation.
“It felt easier than I think we all expected it to be,” her father says. “She dug right in and figured out how to get things done, and she did a great job.”
This daughter quickly learned the accounting program and took over the bookkeeping from her mother and became responsible for co-ordinating seed and fertilizer deliveries, also previously handled by mom. While remaining quite modest, the daughter did not see her actions as extraordinary. “It was fine with me. I knew why mom could not be out there and I got it. I didn’t expect this now, but it was always the plan and I am okay with it.”
There was also a distinct impact on wives and daughters that other family members noticed too. Often, they seemed to take this time harder than their male counterparts.
When we pressed further to help understand why, it revealed some commonalities among mothers. They wanted to be the “fixer” of problems as they arose in the family, or they were quite often the ones running around to try and comply with ever-changing government regulations surrounding protective equipment.
“My wife had to go to six different stores, in the early days when we weren’t even supposed to be going out, just to find enough wipes for the new workers to have their own supplies,” one southwestern Ontario farmer told us. “And guess what? The next day, we found out they each needed to have a certain number of masks available to them at all times. My wife was so upset because it was almost impossible for her to find anything on the shelves these days.
“Day after day, she was leaving the house to help with purchasing items to keep our farm operational. She did it, but the risk weighed heavily on her; going out and about so often.”
For another family, their daughter and only active farming child decided it wasn’t worth the risk for her to continue working in proximity to others while pregnant. The mother bore that burden too, as she understood her daughter’s fears but also had to watch her husband struggle with the additional workload.
“Of course, my husband understood her decision, but we were really stuck,” she recalled. “It challenged us to focus on the health of our daughter and future grandchild while really struggling with how we would get the job done.” Although their planting season went longer into the spring than planned, they were able to complete it with the help of some neighbours.
Resilient families took on new meaning during this time. It wasn’t just about weathering the pandemic together but turning adversity into opportunity and strengthening the bonds between family members. We could be prouder of the families we spoke to, who offered raw honesty about the challenges and opportunities their families faced.
But guess what? They faced them together. They grew stronger, they learned from one another, and this pandemic did not shake their resiliency.
Darrell Wade is a certified family enterprise adviser and a CAFA-certified farm advisor. He is the founder of Farm Life Financial Planning Group and can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.