By Connor Lynch
LINDSAY — As COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus out of China, swept the world last month, Ontario farmers kept trucking and prepping for spring.
At Lindsay, seed dealer Joe Hickson was falling behind on gossip. For 25 years he’s gotten together with a cabal of old farmers to bitch and breakfast. “We’ve had to cancel the breakfast club,” he said. “That’s the biggest hit I’ve taken.”
It’s also been a pain in the neck finding parts. Just last month, he needed a $35 part. “Nothing major,” he said. But it took four phone calls to find someone “who was open and would meet us so we could pick up the pieces and get the machine going.”
Hickson has ordered bags from a Quebec company for the last 27 years. Even with COVID-19 putting the squeeze on business, he got the bags. He just couldn’t get his company logo on them. There’s simply “no production crew to paint them.”
The disease has swept across the world. As of April 3, Canada had 11,131 cases and 161 deaths, and Ontario had 2,793 cases and 53 deaths. The United States had more cases than any other country: As of April 3, the U.S. had 240,511 cases and 5,810 deaths. The World Health Organization estimated COVID-19’s mortality rate at 3.4 per cent, but people over 70 and those with pre-existing respiratory conditions are considered particularly vulnerable.
Late winter and early spring is normally a social time for farmers. But by mid-march meetings, farm shows and conferences were cancelled. Soon after, all gatherings were banned by the provinces. Churches and parks were closed. Schools in Ontario were closed until at least May 4.
Winchester farmer Jan Roosendaal said gatherings were his principal means of meeting other farmers. “Have a coffee and a donut, talk. That’s not possible now,” he said. Roosendaal himself was keeping indoors last month. “I’m over 70, I have to be careful. I don’t go out anymore.”
The outbreak has hit urban centres harder but rural Ontario has hardly been spared. A few long-term care facilities have been hit hard. At Bobcaygeon in Central Ontario, a similar outbreak at a long-term care home saw 13 residents die by April 3. By April 3, Eastern Ontario had 535 cases and 25 deaths, mostly in Durham Region and the City of Ottawa. At the Almonte Country Haven long-term care home, one resident had died from COVID-19 by April 3 and more than 12 staff had been infected.
The province shut down non-essential businesses last month but that spared primary agriculture and the businesses that support it. Many farm equipment dealerships moved to drop boxes and worked by phone and email. Feed and input suppliers did much the same. Dan R. Equipment’s Winchester general manger Johnathan Lalonde said they were getting more calls than usual. To keep helping customers, they were offering parking lot pickups for parts; offering free pickup and drop-off for farm equipment that needs repairing, within 25 miles; and only charging for gas for equipment within 50 miles.
Maxville-area dairy farmer Mark Fraser was concerned about the economic fallout of all the business shutdowns. “Things around me are closed, restaurants are closing. I dunno how much more they can take. Running a little restaurant in the country is a tough business to begin with.”
The business of dairy farming was mostly business as usual with new protocols to enhance disinfecting and distancing. Equipment dealerships and feed stores were all running. The only snag was parts. Fraser finally had to go online to a find a part with a delivery date at the end of April. “How it will play out as things break (during planting) is hard to know,” he said.
Harvex Agromart’s agronomist Terry Good, south of Kemptville, said 99 per cent of their product is delivered straight to farms so the outbreak hasn’t impacted them by much. He also said that by late March, they already had all the fertilizer that farmers would need. “I don’t foresee a problem so far for spring.” At St. Isidore, feed supplier Fred Thibeault said his only issue was the old guys who still wanted to pay with cash. “That’s my problem with coronavirus.”
In Prince Edward County, the Prinzens ended their self-isolation at the end of March. The dairy farmers got back from a family trip to Florida on March 17. They gave their one employee two weeks off, just in case, and settled in to spend some time as a family, said Philip Prinzen. “I’d feel bad if he took it home to his young family and something happened. I can live with chores for a couple of weeks.”
The kids have been doing more chores, catching up on schoolwork hobbies like photography and cooking. Said Prinzen’s wife Selena: “Loving the extra time to take in the everyday joys and sights like sunshine pouring in.”
EASTERN ONTARIO: Farmers keeping calm, keeping to themselves and carrying on through COVID-19
By Connor Lynch