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The new normal is anything but normal for local farmers

In this Cultivate feature we talk to dairy farmer and president of the Wellington County Federation of Agriculture Janet Harrop about the coming season

Spring is here. Livestock is grazing in the pastures and tractors are buzzing around the greening fields and barnyards of farms throughout Wellington County.

Under normal conditions, farmers in the area would be optimistic about a good 2021 growing season but, then again, we are experiencing what many reluctantly describe as “the new normal.”

“The cost of doing business in any kind of manufacturing, which agriculture is essentially a form of manufacturing, has gotten out of control,” said Janet Harrop, president of the Wellington County Federation of Agriculture. “Margins were tight before, but now there are a lot of people who aren’t even covering their cost of production.”

Harrop operates Harrcroft Acres Ltd., a family-owned dairy farm north of Fergus with more than 100 Holsteins and about 160 hectares of crops.

“We put in about 400 acres of mainly crops that feed our animals,” she said. “We sell a little bit, but we mainly just grow alfalfa, corn, wheat and soybeans in rotation that helps to not only get a good yield but improves our soil health.” 

Weather conditions this time last year created some challenges.

“Our growing season really starts the previous year,” said Harrop. “Last year we had a late, wet, cold spring which pushed last year’s growing season late.”

Luckily, when the warm weather did arrive, it stayed late into the fall and provided more time for farmers to prepare the fields for the winter.  

“A lot of people think that spring is really busy but actually the fall, with trying to get crops off and getting fields ready for winter, is even a tighter compacted season,” said Harrop. “So, we had a good fall, and we were able to get a lot of our nutrients like manure out on the field when it had the most nutritional benefit and the least amount of environmental risk.”

Mother Nature helped even more by delivering lots of cold winter temperatures and snow.

“We had snow cover for a majority of the winter which is ideal for crops because crops are damaged when we get freeze-thaw cycles where the snow melts and you get ice,” said Harrop.  “We had cold temperatures for sustained periods of time and that really helps for pest control.”

Conditions for this growing season would be near ideal for local farmers if not for supply chain disruptions created by the global pandemic.

“We are always susceptible to the weather, but I think this year supply chain disruption is a big one because being able to source product I could normally get the next day, I’m having to plan probably two weeks out,” said Harrop. “For the small farmer, getting access to product is going to be an issue.”

It has also driven up prices on everything from lumber to fertilizer.

“I sort of foresaw the risk moving forward so I pre-purchased a lot of things last fall and early winter,” said Harrop. “Some of the fertilizer I pre-purchased has saved me almost $200 a ton. That is the difference in costs.  This coming summer and fall we are really going to see some of the impact of the costs.”

Farmers who rely on temporary foreign workers may also be facing a shortage of help.  

“We got hit really hard this time last year and people are on top of it a little more this year because of knowing there will be delays, but access to workers and providing a safe working environment for workers is a huge issue for agricultural producers,” she said.

Harrop, who is also an ICU nurse, is well aware of the health dangers of COVID-19.  She is also aware of the social impact the lockdowns, social distancing and other pandemic protocols are having on people’s mental health and work-life balance.

“A year and a half ago there was a lot of discussion around the natural isolating environment of farming and from a mental health perspective, some of those risks,” she said. “COVID hit and then working in an isolated environment was pretty enviable.”

Harrop and her family have adapted relatively well and it helps that they love being farmers.

“We love working with the animals,” she said. “We love working on the land. We love being our own boss. Our work really hasn’t changed significantly.”

The pandemic has taught Canadians some hard lessons about our dependence on imports including our food.    

“I think one of the best things that happened with COVID is people last year went to the grocery store and shelves were empty,” said Harrop. “It really made people pause and think about where their food comes from because we live in a country where you never go to the store and the shelves are empty.”

The abundance we’ve enjoyed of relatively cheap food often comes at great cost down the road.

“COVID is an awful thing but some education has happened that has been beneficial to local food,” she said. “It has taught us the value of expanding our local food to decrease our carbon footprint so, it isn’t traveling thousands of miles to get to our stores. That’s a real benefit.”