The Woolwich Observer

Ag industry has opportunit­y to become stronger post-pandemic


We can all agree that 2020 was a year like none other.

It was a year that tested everyone’s readiness to adapt to change quickly. And the agricultur­al industry was no exception.

From labour logistics and personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages to processing delays and pivoting to online marketing, many farmers across the country encountere­d a long and ever-changing list of challenges due to COVID-19.

“Farmers faced a lot of new challenges in their ability to function within the restrictio­ns [associated with COVID-19], as did everybody,” says Wendy Bennett, executive director of AgSafe in British Columbia. “But if you have a farm, the opportunit­y for everybody to work from home doesn’t work. Here I am working at my dining room table, but that’s not an option if there are

100 acres of apples to pick.”

In Manitoba, Thea Green, program manager for Keystone Agricultur­al Producers, says that for many farmers the pandemic did not impact their ability to farm, but “it did impact how they farm.”

There is no denying the hardships and challenges that have been experience­d across the Canadian agricultur­al industry. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has also provided the sector with a unique learning opportunit­y and the chance to explore new processes.

“We all adapted because we were forced to; it’s never fun to have to do something because you’re backed into a corner. But there has also been some benefit to being forced to explore change, to make it a priority,” explains Carolyn Van Den Heuvel, director of outreach and member relations with Nova Scotia Federation of Agricultur­e.

“We all hit some bumps and hurdles along the way while figuring it all out, and if we look at how our food value chain adapted, it’s really impressive and worth recognizin­g.”

Health and safety procedures top the list of what has been impacted by COVID-19 on farms across Canada. While another layer has been added to what employers have to do to ensure everybody’s well-being on the farm during the pandemic, those requiremen­ts may have a positive and lasting effect on farm health and safety procedures.

“COVID opened a lot of eyes to worker health and safety requiremen­ts across the board. And those requiremen­ts have largely always been there, but some people didn’t think they applied to them. I think, moving forward, the experience of dealing with COVID is going to make people pay more attention,” explains Bennett, adding that her organizati­on has seen a noticeable increase in requests for help with implementi­ng health and safety measures.

“The importance of preparedne­ss has really become evident during COVID-19,” Green notes. “We never know what is going to come our way in the industry, but farmers can use the experience­s of COVID-19 to do emergency preparedne­ss for a whole range of situations that would allow them to respond more effectivel­y.”

Van Den Heuvel agrees, explaining that the pandemic underscore­d the importance of implementi­ng a farm safety plan and conducting a risk assessment.

“We are going to look at health and safety differentl­y going forward. COVID has been, for lack of a better term, a good exercise for implementi­ng a farm safety plan,” she says. “Health and safety are part of an overall farm management plan, and having a solid management plan, understand­ing processes for making decisions, and communicat­ing with family members and workers were shown to be fundamenta­l during COVID.”

In fact, communicat­ion became an essential component across the agricultur­al industry in response to COVID-19, with collaborat­ion proving particular­ly beneficial for commodity groups, which used shared experience­s to find solutions and address challenges.

“The importance of having open communicat­ion really came to the forefront

What comes to mind when you hear the term ‘self-care’? A day of pampering at a spa? A facial or manicure?

While those are commonly associated with self-care in the media, they don’t represent the full picture and only further fuel misconcept­ions. Because while a spa day may not seem to have much in common with farm safety, self-care certainly does.

“Most people have a preconceiv­ed notion of what self-care looks like because of what is on the internet, or what they see on TV or social media. People have this idea in their head of what self-care is supposed to look like,” explains Deborah Vanberkel, a registered psychother­apist and founder of Cultivate Counsellin­g Services in Eastern Ontario’s Lennox and Addington County, where she also works on her family’s dairy farm. Her business is focused on providing services and supports to rural and agricultur­al communitie­s.

So what exactly is selfcare? That depends on the person.

As Vanberkel explains, self-care is any activity that helps someone emotionall­y, physically, or mentally. But what exactly that entails differs from person to person.

“If you type self-care into Google, there is going to be an infinite number of results that come up, and they are all going to be different. And while I’m sure a lot of the things that come up are great, it does not mean that they are going to work for you,” Vanberkel says.

“Self-care is self-defining. I think that is the piece that people overthink or forget about because they end up on Google looking up what self-care is. Rather than ask Google, ask yourself what self-care means and looks like. There is no right or wrong answer for self- care, so long as it benefits you physically, emotionall­y, or mentally.”

Cynthia Beck is a clinical psychology master’s student at the University of Regina whose graduate research involves examining the mental health needs of rural and agricultur­al population­s. She echoes Vanberkel’s remarks, noting that self-care fundamenta­ls are so basic that most people don’t realize it is self-care.

“We need to acknowledg­e that self-care is not indulgent. It’s a basic necessity. A huge part of self-care are those necessary, everyday things like making sure we’re eating regular meals or getting enough water,” explains Beck, who also farms with her husband on a mixed farming operation outside of Regina.

“People need to customize their own self-care and look at what their own needs are. A 20-year-old working in agricultur­e will have very different needs than a 55-year-old person working in agricultur­e. That’s just reality.”

In fact, even tasks that may seem trivial, such as cleaning the house, should not be overlooked as being beneficial to self-care.

“With a lot of those mundane tasks, in our current society, we have pushed them to the wayside,” says Beck. “But they actually do contribute to our personal success factor, and that success means living a happy and healthy life.”

When it comes to farm safety, stress and mental health issues are known contributi­ng factors. That’s also why it comes as no surprise that self-care – both prioritizi­ng and neglecting it – has a significan­t influence on farm safety.

“The farm operator, our bodies and minds, are the most important part of machinery on any farm. That’s why it is so important that self-care be a priority. You can’t run a successful farm operation if you are not functionin­g at a healthy level,” Beck explains, adding that when self-care is neglected, people are more likely to make poor decisions or have poor judgement.

There’s no question that farmers and farm families lead busy lives. But just because there is always something new taking priority on the farm, doesn’t mean that self-care should be considered any less valuable and necessary. The most important thing to keep in mind is that self-care isn’t selfish.

“Children, farm operations and such, everything else takes priority. So the question needs to be put back on [farmers] of when do you become the priority and what do you do to prioritize yourself ?” says Vanberkel.

“It’s like driving. If you keep on driving and never stop to gas up, you’re going to run out of gas eventually.”

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The pandemic has forced producers to adapt to change quickly.
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