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Farming parents need accessible, high-quality child care for their children. Can they get it?

When Donalee Jones and Scott Mowbray returned to their home town and began farming near Cartwright, Man., in 2008, the couple assumed that when things got busy, the family that they planned to have one day could easily be looked after by Scott’s parents, who lived on the yard of the Mowbray’s 2,000-acre grain farm.

They didn’t give a second thought to needing other options for child care even after their first two children Abigail and Norah were born in 2010 and 2011.

“The dream was I’d work from home while the kids napped,” says Jones, who works part-time in a home-based office as senior producer for a Winnipeg-based media company. “Or we’d take them on the tractor.”

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Today she emphasizes the word “dream” as she talks about the scheduling nightmare that eventually piled up, with her trying to manage farmwork and the demands of her job while also trying to match grandparents’ schedules to children’s care needs.

Fortunately, help was on its way.

The Cartwright and Early District Learning Centre opened its doors in the fall of 2012 providing licensed spaces for 16 pre-schoolers and four infants. They signed up their children for a couple of days a week.

“We thought we might as well register the kids, to have that option to send them there when we were in a bind,” says Donalee.

“We discovered that it was fantastic. The kids loved it. And they were way better off.”

The couple immediately realized just how much pressure had been on everyone, including grandparents.

“We still rely on the grandparents quite a bit, of course, on evenings and weekends,” Jones says. “But it was really nice to have the option to send them to daycare a couple of days a week. Number one, it’s a safety issue. When we’re farming I do not like having the kids in the cab with me for any extended period of time. If I’m operating equipment, I need to focus on that, and having a kid in the cab is a distraction and potentially a safety issue.”

She’d felt equally divided with them at home while she tried to work in her home office.

“In either one of my jobs, I can’t do as good a job if my brain is split between Mom brain and work brain.”

That captures how many parents in this farm community felt, and why they’d advocated for daycare.

It was a pressure cooker for many young parents, says Riley Kemp, principal of Cartwright School, a father of three and a cattle producer.

Kemp was serving on the board of the local community development corporation back in 2010 when early conversations began about the need for a child care centre in the area, with talk that a daycare might see more young people choose to call Cartwright and the surrounding municipality of Roblin home, given that so many parents with young families now work.

Kemp and his wife Lee-Anne would soon to face the same dilemma; Lee-Anne is a physiotherapist and wanted to continue to work in her profession after their children were born.

In 2011 a survey showed 14 families required early learning centre services for 20 children, so the project was a go. Local councils agreed to kick in funding. By the autumn of 2012 construction had begun.

Meanwhile, a volunteer board began all the other work to start an Early Learning Centre, such as hiring staff, drafting policies, and signing legal documents.

This was a volunteer effort by a community convinced that investing in daycare is good for children and their working parents, and a boon to the community itself, says Kemp, who spent weekends and evenings with a dozen volunteers on jobs like drywalling.

The Cartwright and District Early Learning Centre opened in 2013 and immediately took the pressure off families struggling with child care.

“There were so many of us in the same boat, trying to figure out Mom-sharing dates,” recalls Kemp.

Child care deserts

Parents across the country who face long waitlists or have no child care options whatsoever know how rocky that boat can be. And there are untold numbers of them.

In 2018 the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) uncovered what it dubs “child care deserts” in Canada. Their report mapped licensed child care spaces against the number of children by postal code, with a desert defined as any postal code with more than 50 under-school-aged children, and fewer than one space for every three.

What it showed is that child care deserts are proportionately more prevalent in rural areas, says report author and CCPA senior economist David Macdonald.

“What’s pretty clear as you move to smaller centres, you get lower coverage rates,” Macdonald says. “There’s fewer child care spaces for the number of children that live in those rural areas.”

No matter the province, cities with populations over 100,000 show higher rates of child care coverage compared to rural areas.

Provincial policies also matter, says Macdonald. In rural Quebec, for example, there is roughly one space for every two children. “That’s more or less the best case.”

“Then you get the worst-case scenario, which is in places like Saskatchewan where you’ve got one space for every 10 children or so.”

Out of the way

Those numbers do not surprise Treena Epp. She’s the executive director of the Ever Green Early Learning Centre in the small southwestern Saskatchewan town of Cabri — pronounced “Kay-bree” — located about 40 minutes northwest of Swift Current.

Until Ever Green opened here in 2013, parents drove hours per day to put their children in daycare. Cabri (pop. 390) is surrounded by other communities including Abbey, Pennant, and nearby Success.

“Some parents from Abbey were driving past Cabri, past Pennant to Success, where there was a daycare, to drop their kids off and then driving back to work,” says Epp. That was a 40-minute drive one way for some.

“It was out of the way, put it that way.”

A half-dozen local parents in Cabri who were caring for each other’s children finally decided enough was enough. They set out to establish Ever Green, and after multiple donations of money, toys and furniture, untold volunteer hours devoted to navigating the complexities of establishing and operating a daycare, plus capital and operating grants secured from the province, Cabri finally opened with 25 licensed spaces, starting in the local United Church until renovations were completed on a building made available by the town.

Having child care in Cabri now makes a huge difference to local families, says Epp. And it is responsive to their needs. The centre is busiest during the peak work time on the farm, and they’ll keep the centre open as long as 12 hours a day providing quality care and also addressing parental concerns about keeping children out of harm’s way when they need to be wholly engaged in seeding and harvest.

“We’ll have kids here 10 and 11 hours during that time,” Epp says.

On-farm child care

It was for farm children’s safety that farmers in Ontario’s Durham County took the same bull by the horns.

In this case, though, an entirely different approach evolved in the late 1980s after the Uxbridge area was stunned by three young children’s deaths in farming-related accidents in a single year. Those tragedies prompted the Women’s Institute (WI) at Bethesda Reach to get involved, and its surveys revealed a desire for a flexible model of childcare that would provide child care right on the farm.

In 1989, the approach was tried, hiring college students enrolled in early childhood education and using summer employment grants to pay them to provide that care from late spring to fall. Federal funding that same year enabled hiring a director to co-ordinate the program, and in 1991, to start up a family resource and toy lending library.

The entity then incorporated and became Durham Farm and Rural Family Resources (DFRFR) which, among other programs, continues to offer farm families the on-farm child care they need during peak work seasons in spring and summer. Parents pay a fee of $10 per hour to have up to four children cared for on the farm.

Katelyn Larmer, a Nestleton, Ont. dairy farmer and mother of three children ages five, three, and one, now co-ordinates the program and also uses the service when she needs to focus on her farm work.

Katelyn Larmer at work pitching hay in the barn with her helpers.
photo: Rachel Callan Photography

A seasonal, flexible program like this works well for families like theirs because both she and her husband work on the farm and do not have off-farm jobs, Larmer says. It means there’s no need for travel to take their kids elsewhere to daycare, plus they’re not paying fees for spaces they’d only need periodically.

“During the busy times of the year on the farm I can focus on the farm as opposed to having to split my focus,” she says.

“It’s peace of mind knowing that they’re well looked after and they’re at home, they’re learning and having a good time. And I can focus on what I need to get done on the farm.”

But the DFRFR program may need to change in the future. More parents are working off-farm nowadays. The number of farm families using it has actually declined in recent years, a sign the program needs to be more widely promoted, but also that farmers’ child care needs are changing.

“We are currently exploring options that would broaden the scope of the program to include farm families who have off-farm income but are still needing occasional child care — particularly during the peak farming season of May to August,” says Karen Barkey, another Durham County dairy farmer who has co-ordinated the program since 2010.

Meeting needs

Balancing family needs versus what’s possible within funding limits is always the challenge. It can be tough to hire or retain staff when budgets are tight, and there are always ongoing costs.

In Cabri, Epp manages a very tight budget. They’re reluctant to raise rates when operating grants don’t cover their costs, which they barely do.

“One of the biggest complaints is the rates but we can’t function without proper funds coming in,” Epp says. “We’re keeping them as low as we can,” she says, adding that fundraisers are helping keep the lights on.

“Every dollar counts,” Epp says. “We have to be very careful.”

It reveals a core truth. The provision of child care services depends on individual efforts to create it, says Martha Friendly, executive director of the Toronto-based Childcare Resource and Research Unit and co-author of a 2016 report titled Child care can’t wait until the cows come home: Rural child care in the Canadian context.

“This is how child care develops in Canada,” says Friendly. “The rule of thumb across the country is that if you want child care, you have to organize it yourselves. And then you need to make sure that the hydro bill is paid.”

Their review of rural child care was prepared to inform discussion among parents, service providers and policy makers trying to improve it, and points to a wide range of challenges for the delivery of rural child care. Difficulties include finding and retaining qualified staff, the lack of suitable physical facilities, limited capital funding, and low enrolment — not due to a lack of need but to affordability or fluctuating enrolment. Limited base funding is a further barrier to providing ongoing affordable care.

Specific rural challenges include populations spread over wider geographic areas, and families needing child care for seasonal and on standard work hours.

Then, there’s the reality of Canada’s market-based approach to offering child care.

Child care services are mostly unplanned, primarily financed by parent fees, and provided almost entirely by private non-profit and private for-profit service providers.

“It’s not a public responsibility, like schools or sewers, which it is in other countries,” says Friendly.

“This is the main reason why there are child care deserts in rural communities… there’s no public way of saying we need child care and what kind of child care should it be.”

In the meantime, parents are working.

“It’s positive to see families organizing like they do,” says Macdonald. “However, they are forced to organize because governments are not proactive in locating centres where children are.”

Focused on growth

Though more now see the connection between accessible child care and economic growth, few of us have a clear idea of the difference it would make for those living and working in rural Canada if there was a well-funded, systematic approach to planning and developing affordable, quality services.

It’s something that farm policy groups are looking into, though, and they are forming “rural life committees” to address the specific needs of farm family life.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) has been arguing for years that child care is a fundamental service in rural areas. It’s part of the infrastructure that will keep farm families on the farm and maintain their substantial contributions to the economy, says OFA president Keith Currie, who adds that childcare is increasingly needed as more and more farm parents work.

It’s true too for potential farm employees, who need access to child care to take those jobs.

Indeed, the OFA believes accessible, affordable, quality child care will revitalize rural areas because it will be an enticement for more people to live and work there, creating jobs, expanding local skills and spurring economic growth and prosperity.

But to do that, it says, rural areas need a range of solutions to meet the fluctuating needs of farm parents — from drop-in centres, to kids’ camps, on-farm daycare, licensed centres, programs for school-aged children, and support for informal caregivers.

A necessity in rural areas

Manitoba’s Riley Kemp agrees. The idea that quality child care offered locally would be good for their entire community is what the Cartwright group has been arguing from the start, he says.

But then there’s the question: Do small rural economies merit this kind of support?

There’s also the question, “What happens in five years if there aren’t any kids around?”

Kemp’s rebuttal is pointed. “If in five years there aren’t any kids, the community has bigger problems than a building that can be picked up and moved,” he says. “If there aren’t kids going to a daycare in five years, then our town will be in dire straits, no schools and no businesses.”

It’s been six years since Cartwright cut the ribbon on its 2,400-square-foot Early Learning Centre. In it work three full-time and two part-time staff, as well as additional casual helpers. The centre spends most of its operating budget locally, generating additional economic spinoffs.

And there’s still plenty of young parents and children in Cartwright and the surrounding municipality of Roblin using it; it operates near capacity most days of the week.

The school population has also grown in recent years, adds Kemp.

“We might not be able to say one is related to the other, but it’s a pretty close relationship that we end up with more kids in our school because we’re able to support families,” he says.

“Daycares are a necessity in rural communities if we’re going to be viable.”

Jones, whose family now includes a one-and-a-half-year-old son Samuel, says she recognizes now why child care options are one of the fundamental services young families inquire about when weighing the decision to move back to farm or to work in a small town.

“We fought really hard to keep our school in the 1990s. Everyone understands the importance of a school and how without one a community has difficulty attracting new people and young people,” she says.

“A daycare also sways someone’s decision as to whether they’re going to move home to farm, or whether they’re going to move back to their small town.”

About the author

Associate editor

Lorraine Stevenson is associate editor with Country Guide. She has also covered agriculture and rural issues since 1995 as a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator and Farmers’ Independent Weekly.

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