After the challenges of 2020, many farmers are adjusting holiday traditions and wishing for health and stability in their industry in 2021
By Jackie Clark
Throughout what has truly been a year like no other, farmers across Ontario have worked hard to continue to produce food, while dealing with the many challenges a global pandemic threw their way. Farms.com checked in with producers to get their thoughts on 2020 and hopes for the year ahead.
“I think reflecting back on the past year the biggest thing we’ve learnt is that the world can live without celebrities and sports stars, but we can’t function without people like farmers,” Esther Kelly told Farms.com. She’s a sheep farmer in Grey County and has also been working as a frontline healthcare worker throughout the pandemic, as a nurse in long-term care. Her and her husband also raise a few cattle and chickens for meat and eggs. “In our line of work there is never a break, the work is always there regardless of what is going on in the world.”
“As a sheep farmer I’ve learnt that our industry needs to start working together … the sheep industry has done very well throughout the global pandemic and we are seeing record prices for lambs, but we struggle to work together as a team to advance our industry further,” Kelly said.
Having an off-farm job also provides challenges, as Kelly explains, “As a nurse there is a lot of balance that has to go into our lives on the farm. Shift work requires a flexible schedule at home.”
For some farmers, the year revealed both the strengths and weaknesses of agriculture.
“I learned how resilient ag is but also how vulnerable it is,” Ian McKillop told Farms.com. He grows corn, soybeans and wheat, as well as raising pullets, cattle, sheep and producing eggs in Dutton. “Resilient because farmers always find a way to persevere and find solutions. Vulnerable because the pandemic forced changes in markets.”
Though the industry faced many challenges, producers were able to adapt and respond.
McKillop “also learned how giving ag is. Most farm organizations and many individual farmers gave food or money to help those in need,” he added.
For Henry Reinders, who grows wheat, barley, soybeans and hay on his farm just south of Meaford, the pandemic reminded him how grateful he is to be a farmer.
“Self isolation comes naturally to most farmers as we get on the land in our tractors and equipment and work at putting in the crops. For me. and many farmers I talked to, there was no real change to our daily routines,” he said. “I have found the ag community to always be well grounded - pun intended - and resilient … Farmers have adjusted to this as being another challenge to deal with.”
To keep each other safe this year, many farmers had to make small adjustments to how they work or interact with others.
The situation provided some practical reminders, such as the benefit of having extra spare parts on the farm, using online resources to find information, and increasing your capacity to be self-sufficient for repairs, Jeannette Mongeon told Farms.com. Her and her partner’s operation in Embrun has gone through many changes over the years, from dairy cows to berries to rabbits. They now operate a cash crop farm, mostly growing soybeans.
Though the holiday season will look different this year, many farmers are planning to pause and celebrate.
“For us, it's like any other holiday or special day … work comes first,” said Mongeon. Preparing and freezing food ahead of time helps her reduce stress and engage with family or guests in a typical year. Her family will be having a pajama Christmas breakfast and Secret Santa.
“The secret never makes it to Christmas. Who is getting who for secret Santa leaks out,” she added.
McKillop’s family typically works together to complete chores on Christmas morning.
“The kids always do an Advent of good deeds leading up to Christmas. And then a family tradition for us it to collect eggs as a family on Christmas morning,” he explained.
For those with faith-based traditions, gatherings have changed this year.
“For myself, Christmas has always been a time to slow down farming activities just a little to reflect on the birth of Christ and to enjoy time with the family,” Reinders explained. “Our church traditions have been muted this year with reduced attendance, no singing and limited participation in services but it is still a joy to be in church and worship together even if there are no celebrations or coffee times to follow the service.”
His family gathering will be a little smaller this year, with some members joining on Zoom.
“For many people that I talked to in my travels, Christmas is going to be low key this year,” he added. “Some have children or relatives involved in essential services and they would be unable to meet in person. There will be many more phone calls, Facetime calls, and Zoom gatherings. Like everyone else, farmers have adapted to the technology available to help them meet their needs, both for personal and business reasons.”
Kelly’s family will be attending church services via livestream.
“We will be spending our time on the farm with just our family this year, which will be nice to just enjoy the day with the kids and the farm,” she said. She hopes for a white Christmas. “I remember as a kid being pulled behind the tractor on sleds on Christmas Day with our cousins.”
With the new year approaching, many farmers are hoping for health and prosperity for their industry.
McKillop hopes for “good health and a return to more normalized markets for those most affected by the pandemic,” he said. He’s also wishing “for the opportunity to go to meetings, conferences and trade shows again. Farmers and the ag industry miss the in-person learning opportunities and the social interactions from meeting each other in person.”
Mongeon hopes careful business planning can help improve “all sectors of agriculture financially and in mental health,” she said.
Agriculture has an opportunity to be part of Canada’s recovery from the impact of the pandemic.
“My wish for agriculture is that it gets the respect it deserves from our leaders and from those who are not directly associated with it,” Reinders said. “It continues to be the backbone of our country, supplying an unending quantity of quality, nutritious food.”
After all, the hopes and wishes for our agriculture industry reflect those that many Ontarians have for their families and loved ones: health and safety, recognition and connection.
“As far as 2021, personally we hope for continued good health for our family and our communities, as family run farms are a vital part of our community,” said Kelly.
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