Farming and COVID-19: Renfrew farmer 'overwhelmed' by challenges

Jennifer Doelman, a seed grower near Renfrew, was faced with a severe labour shortage at the height of the pandemic last year.

Her husband had a heart condition, so he couldn’t help her and her usual child-care providers (her parents) couldn’t assist as they were considered high-risk for COVID-19.

As for her farm workers — most of whom were older adults — she had to let most of them go. “The pandemic magnified the labour shortage. It was so hard to get labour,” she said.

As a way to cope, Doelman worked within her ‘bubble’, decided to downsize, focused more on productive and sustainable crops, and considered more automation at the farm.

“It was overwhelming to say the least. How do you run your business and keep your children safe without fracturing yourself? We had to lower our standards a bit. We got creative,” she said.

She admitted there were a lot of long, hard days and a lot of stress. “(I wondered) if the seeds would be ready. Our livelihood depended on that,” Doelman said.

Along with her husband Michael, Doelman is the owner of the 1,100-acre Bonnechere Haven Farms. She is a third-generation grain farmer and seed grower, as well as a certified crop adviser and beekeeper.

Some of the crops on her farm include corn, wheat, soybeans, sunflowers, canola, peas, barley, oats and triticale (hybrid of wheat and rye). “We’re probably one of the most diverse crop farmers in the Ottawa valley,” she said.

What Doelman hopes would change in agriculture is the access to skilled labour for farmers, and for the government to invest in training skilled labour. Consulting work, robotics, and a human resources firm focusing on agricultural needs are also on her wish list.

“We have electricians, plumbers … why do we not have an apprenticeship for farming? How many times do you need a plumber? Once a year? You need a farmer every day,” she said.

“And yet it’s relegated to the bottom of the list,” Doelman said. “The industry itself needs to evolve.”

Yona Harvey, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Smiths Falls Record News