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Resilient farmers vs. COVID-19: How one Ontario farm got so resilient

Rather than focussing on pandemic problems, the next generation brings solutions to the table

Our series on farm resiliency has been a fascinating one to write. We have spoken with several farm families about the challenges they faced and overcame during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how it affected the ag community.

We focused on the positives — stories of families and communities coming together to get last year’s crop in the ground and the fall harvest completed. We also talked about innovations that made operations more efficient and effective, and about families that got stronger as they faced the challenges of 2020.

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So much has come down to resilient operations. But we also saw that the farms that incorporated professional planning into their business model were fastest to adapt and excel.

Resilient people are aware of their situations. They are able to maintain control and think of new ways to tackle problems. Our ag community understood quickly, and earlier than most other industries, that the challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic would require quick adaptability to save their operations. This month, we turn our spotlight on those resilient farms, with a focus both on the changes and on the attitude required for them to survive.

“Farmers really are the biggest gamblers,” says Bruce Fox, fourth-generation farmer in Ontario. “So many things are out of your control: the weather, the markets, interest changes. Being prepared and trying to mitigate your risk is the only way to approach business in this industry.”

For the Fox family, navigating through the pandemic required them to reduce their chicken quota and adapt to the challenges facing poultry processing facilities. Similar to other farm families, the Foxes have built resiliency over the years through challenges such as barn fires, heart health scares and mental health challenges.

Running an operation with no hired help and relying only on family required the Foxes to lean on their planning skills, being prepared and mitigating risk. “I have always believed it is critical in any industry but especially in ours, that you need to (continually) develop skills that will help you in your farming career,” says Fox. “You don’t want to depend on the productivity of other people or organizations.”

Planning allowed the Fox family to weather the pandemic better than most by preparing for the what-ifs in life. Says Fox: “Being prepared, knowing your business plans, and trying to minimize your risk is a good thing. But I always tell my children, ‘If you didn’t have the rainy days, you wouldn’t appreciate the sunny ones.’”

The Foxes have invested in their farm business and family by building a team of professionals to bring clarity and certainty to their future, developing a plan for their family, their business and their future.

For this Ontario cash cropper in 2020, the challenges began early while trying to access the fertilizer required for his previously ordered seed. Ever-changing direction from government had an impact on his supply chain, and suddenly he was faced with a critical moment. His fertilizer would not arrive in time and he had to make a quick decision to save spring planting.

Without the fertilizer, the seed would not take, but could new seed be secured in time for planting? “In many ways I felt like this thing was never a surprise for farmers. It really is just another day for us. There is a new problem every week. Some are bigger than others, but we always get through them.”

They had to quickly pivot and source a new supply of seed that would work based on the environment, conditions and available fertilizer products. Once those decisions were made, changes to ensure worker safety required their focus.

“We had to look at our planter and form cubicles to isolate everyone from the person next to them on either side to create proper ventilation,” Fox says. “It wasn’t a big deal for us, but rather another modification on the long list of stuff already done.”

The ability to find solutions rather than look at every new obstacle as another problem is a key differentiator in how resilient families handle challenges. Having always operated the farm like a business, and having a process in place to quickly address issues and pivot when required were what helped the Foxes succeed.

“We learned a ton and are even better prepared,” Fox says. “2020 challenged us to approach things differently, and the lessons are ones we will continue to learn from.”

Professional planning played a key role in how the families we spoke to were able to manage the COVID-19 pandemic last year and are planning ahead for the ongoing challenges this year. We helped them improve communication so everyone has a voice in the family business.

In this family’s case, it was the next generation that changed the approach by bringing solutions to the table, rather than focusing on the problems the pandemic was presenting. Confidence in helping the next generation find their voice, and creating an environment where it was well received, were critical in their quick pivoting to salvage last year’s crop.

Going into this year’s planting, the uncertainties continue for the global population and for our community. Preparedness, creativity and flexibility will continue to be key traits required this spring, while showcasing our determination to not be defeated.

Other key 2020 take-aways that will help operations stay resilient include:

Make decisions quickly. For the Foxes, pivoting quickly allowed a year’s worth of crops to be saved by making a quick decision and moving forward with that decision in a short time frame.

Look after your employees. Whether paid labour or family labour, every employee needs to feel valued and that they are being listened to. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is even more important to ensure that your employees’ safety concerns are being addressed.

Communicate early. Crises require over-communication. Find out about your buyers’ immediate and long-term needs and build your farm business model to deliver on those needs.

Help one another. Most of you relied on members of your family or community to get through last season. Keep that sense of community up during the winter and ensure everyone knows the important role they can play during a time of crisis.

Always look for ways to improve. Do not stop looking for efficiencies and ways to continually be better. Be prepared to face a variety of problems and always anticipate what could be coming next.

Know your numbers. A monthly profit and loss statement and regularly reviewing your financials allows family businesses to be prepared for the unexpected and to take advantage of an opportunity.

Darrell Wade is a certified family enterprise adviser and a CAFA-certified farm advisor. He is the founder of Farm Life Financial Planning Group farmlifefinancial.ca and can be reached directly at [email protected].

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Darrell Wade is a certified family enterprise adviser and a CFA-certified farm adviser. He is the founder of Farm Life Financial Planning Group and can be reached directly at [email protected]

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