By Sheila Phibbs
The Haldimand Press
HALDIMAND—When COVID-19 hit in 2020 and lockdowns were imposed, many businesses and industries were effectively shut down; significant changes were made to adapt to life in a pandemic. While so much of life was impacted, farmers continued to do their work with little interruption, proving that they are and always have been essential workers.
Mark and Rachel Vaarkamp grow corn, wheat, and soybeans on their farm in Oneida. For the past 18 years, Mark has also operated a custom manure spreading business. In 2018 he expanded, purchasing forest mulching equipment to clean up brush and fence lines and cut back branches in bush lots.
According to Rachel, not much changed due to the pandemic and she says, “We can still continue with the farming operations.”
They are accustomed to health and safety regulations as she notes, “Biosecurity has always been a priority for all farmers.”
Where they have noticed the impact of the pandemic is with the availability of parts, making equipment repair an aggravation. Parts have been slow to arrive, with waits as long as six to eight months.
As a family, they have felt the social changes as they have not been able to attend church or see family or friends on a regular basis. They have also missed visiting with farmer customers. Rachel observes, “Sometimes being in the country can really make it obvious how isolated we really can make ourselves.”
She admits that working from home as a bookkeeper and getting school in for their eldest daughter could be “tough and draining,” but they are blessed to be in the country as they can head outside when the “cooped up” feeling sets in.
No matter how they feel, farmers work to ensure the production of food. Rachel states, “Farmers are also consumers. We want a safe, sustainable food supply and we work hard to make that happen. Farmers are well set up to provide a safe and stable food supply regardless of life circumstances or COVID.”
For the family of John and Alicia Laidlaw at Echo Lane Farms, the end of 2020 brought several changes – though not because of the pandemic. The couple welcomed their fourth child in November and then, in December, after milking a large herd of dairy goats for more than 12 years, they sold the farm and moved into Hagersville.
John explains that they had already been considering selling when COVID-19 arrived. The reason was a motorcycle accident he had three years prior; the injuries he sustained were aggravated by the long work days that involved upwards of 21,000 steps. He says, “I was going to need a new hip, which was not possible while milking goats.”
Prior to selling the farm, the pandemic did not have much effect as John says, “The work still had to be done.” In some ways, he feels life was almost easier during the first lockdown as there were fewer people showing up at the farm to see the goats and fewer places to go. In contrast, the second lockdown was a much different experience. The family was living in town and much of their time was spent in the house, sometimes for days on end, which was very unusual. He acknowledges that the move into town was a big change for the children. He says, “Everyone suffered a little more mentally.”
Despite selling the farm, a connection to farming remains. John kept his equipment and will be doing the field work for the new owners of the farm. He will continue to grow crops at another farm property they own and also has plans to do more custom work. He says, “I’ve always liked it. I don’t have all the equipment that some do, but what I have is good. I can be the extra guy to help out. I can sit all day in a tractor.”
In the meantime, John has been a stay-at-home dad while Alicia returned to work at Purolator in Mount Hope. As the family of six continues to adjust to life in town, they look forward to the return of favourite activities, the eventual end of the pandemic, and, hopefully, someday living on a farm again.
Similar to Vaarkamps and Laidlaws, the day-to-day operations of the family dairy farm were not affected greatly by the pandemic for Lori Winger of Keylas Farms Ltd. in Fisherville. She says, “I still had my everyday routine – you milk the cows twice a day and feed them every day.” One noticeable change was the restrictions on visitors, so sales people could not come to the farm. The veterinarian had to come when necessary and Winger says, “Everyone respected everyone and followed protocols. I think it’s pretty simple really.”
One significant aspect of farm life that was directly impacted by the pandemic – show season. Each year the family participates in several Holstein shows, but the cancellation of fairs in 2020 meant there were no shows to attend. Winger was especially disappointed for her nieces and nephews who have always enjoyed working with the calves to get them ready for the show ring. She admits that she was fine with the break saying, “You realize how much running around you do, but I feel bad for the kids.”
With those kids in mind, Winger will be watching this spring for calves with potential for the show ring in the hopes of a show season later this year. It is just one more way that farming carries on as she says, “You can’t stop farming – animals need to be looked after; food needs to be made.”
Charlotte Huitema, an egg farmer and Secretary of the Haldimand Federation of Agriculture (HFA), agrees with that sentiment as she says, “As farmers, we must do our part to keep the food chain strong and reach everyone.”
She indicates that the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) is supporting farmers through the pandemic. Information and resources pertaining to farm business, human resources, mental health, and funding can be accessed through the OFA website (ofa.on.ca/information-and-resources-covid-19/).
At the local level, the HFA discusses any matters brought to them by Haldimand farmers at their monthly meetings, which are currently virtual. Huitema says, “This pandemic has created an environment full of uncertainty and instability for our province but through it all, Ontario farmers have been working hard to maintain production of the agriculture/food supply chain.”