The pandemic has uncovered cracks that were already present in our agricultural sector. Light shining through those cracks has shown us ways to improve

How will COVID-19 change the way you farm?

I think it’s safe to say nobody saw this coming– and nobody anticipated the short- and long-term effects the pandemic would have on farmers, agriculture and society here in Canada. There have been many challenges for agriculture including supply chain relationships and the closing of processing plants, retailers and restaurants, as well as managing labour and ensuring the health and welfare of employees and the general public.

Some members of the agricultural community have commented that COVID-19 has brought to light cracks that were already present in our agricultural sector – the delicate balance between production and processing capacity, limited channels for selling and marketing products, insufficient working capital and financial planning, an insecure source of labour and inadequate internet service.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) surveyed its farmers over the first few months of the pandemic. Among the respondents, 80 per cent indicated they have experienced a change in their operations due to COVID-19, 88 per cent have experienced negative financial impacts on their farm business, and 57 per cent reporting reduced cash flow.

When asked about their top concerns, financial impacts (e.g. operations, commodity markets, liquidity and capital resources) were consistently the top concern, followed by health and safety for themselves and their staff.

Farmer mental health challenges were prominent before the pandemic. A University of Guelph study found that 45 per cent of farmers in Canada said they had high stress, while 58 per cent met the criteria for anxiety and 35 per cent for depression. The OFA survey reports farmers are more stressed and concerned about their mental health due to COVID-19. When asked about their mental health compared to last year, two-thirds of farmers (67.5 per cent) indicated they were experiencing more stress and concern about their mental health due to COVID-19. Many farmers are taking steps to cope with the stress: 36 per cent are reaching out to peers, family and friends, 33 per cent are taking short breaks, four per cent have contacted a doctor and three per cent have called or chatted online with a mental health program or call centre.

Childcare has also surfaced as a challenge on many farms. Children require extra supervision when schools and daycares are shut. This includes support for their online learning, which is especially difficult for younger children and their parents. Something else is also happening – with students returning from college and university, farms are finding extra hands available to help with farm work. However, some students find it difficult to carve out time for their schoolwork when the farm and family are counting on their help.

Change brings opportunities

When a change comes along that’s as significant as a global pandemic where everyone is affected, there are challenges, but there are also opportunities. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and as we look around at our agriculture sector and how we are adjusting, I would say this is most certainly true!

Participation in online learning and industry events has seen a definite upswing, as many organizations and companies have taken their offerings into the virtual space. We are seeing not only increased participation, but comfort levels with online technology have increased by leaps and bounds. Participation has also become more feasible when you can access these opportunities from the comfort of your farm or office, saving time and money on travel, and opening us up to a new world of learning opportunities around the world. Of course, with more online activities comes the necessity to improve rural access to high-speed internet to take advantage of these new opportunities.

While we mourn the loss of in-person networking and building interpersonal relations with those we typically meet at industry meetings and conferences, we are seeing some farmers and organizations embracing online technology like Zoom, Teams and WhatsApp, for example, to stay connected through online peer networks and regular online chats. Sometimes these chats are just to stay connected and don’t have a specific agenda.

Will online learning and events stay, or will they be a distant memory when all of this is behind us? I believe we have found new ways to connect and learn using online technology and we will continue to do so.

I think that while there is something special that happens when you can share a drink or meal with someone in-person, perhaps we will be more selective, going forward, in what requires us to travel to access learning opportunities.

With increasing comfort using online technology, some farms have taken to online sales and social media as new marketing avenues to help minimize the loss of their regular sales channels.

Farm Management Canada recently co-hosted a live Facebook session with four farmers from the Prairies, asking them to reflect on the past year and tell us about their plans for their farm businesses moving forward. Interestingly, many commented that with the reduction of in-person events and meetings, they found more time to spend working on their business, reflecting on their business practices and areas for improvement, and getting ahead in their planning.

Looking back at 2020, where we are seeing the most success is with those farms who have a strategic mindset and consistently try to plan ahead. These are farmers who envision various scenarios for the farm and have devised a plan to account for whatever may happen. This gives them the upper hand when a crisis emerges because the plan shows a path forward when emotions run high and decision-making becomes clouded. The plan helps the farm manage uncertainty while also being poised to fast-forward when opportunities present themselves.

Reflecting on the past year’s events, what worked out really well for you farm? Of those things that worked well, did they come about by design or just a little luck? What didn’t go so well, and how could you make improvements for better outcomes in the future? Is your business flexible enough to take a detour in moving toward your business goals, or are you caught on a one-way street? Have you put all your eggs in one basket, or have you diversified your risk by diversifying your strategies when it comes to suppliers, buyers, labour and finance?

One thing is certain, COVID-19 has put agriculture in the spotlight, reminding the Canadian public where their food comes from and that farmers are essential workers. It’s our time to shine, and I believe we are doing just that.