July 8th, 2021

July 8th, 2021

So it’s been quite a hiatus…..my last post was mid-May.  

Well, I’ve been busy farming of course! That’s the accepted cliche, farmers are outside putting in ridiculously long hours of back breaking work. But that’s a far cry from what I actually do.  Too much time is spent churning paper, navigating government and trying to reinvent ourselves to stay in business. So I cherish the chance to do anything “real” which is what I’ve mostly been up to the last month or so. But it’s not how you might imagine it. I no longer plant vegetables, weed vegetables, harvest vegetables (except bulk carrots, it’s the hardest machine  I have ever operated, and so far I’m the only one who has mastered it) pack vegetables or even sell very many vegetables. What I do, is coordinate everyone and almost everything while I  work continuously in the farm shop to keep everything working properly. I also spend a lot of time modifying, fabricating and just plain inventing anything I can to reduce our labour load and keep the cash flow in the black. We have our work cut out for us for sure. Labour supply is tighter than ever and I can see no reason why that trend would change. 

We have about 6-8 fewer Canadians working this year than last (it was cool to work on a farm last summer during COVID lockdown so we had an unusual bump in the number of students working for us) but so far we have been able to keep up as well as or better than we could last year. So that’s a good thing. (we are “only” short two foreign professionals this year, no fault  this side of the border; Mexico wasn’t able to come through in time because of COVID related  document processing issues) 

The crops, so far, this year have done very well and started nearly two weeks earlier than last year. More good news. Now, if we can keep sales volumes up (wink wink, nudge nudge) we pray that we will have a good year. It’s too early to tell of course but at least we have a good start, and hope. 

So first a glimpse of what makes me want to farm until my body no longer allows and then a  glimpse of the often rude reality of our existence. 

This evening (Wednesday) I had the rare opportunity to do a job that really took me back to my youth. Early tomorrow I need to bale two smallish fields of hay for a neighbour of our north mountain land (an annex to our farm) that overlooks the Bay of Fundy allowing me to see all the way to New Brunswick in good weather and, most of the time, I get the most spectacular view of Cape Split. I was using an old, small, open station tractor (42 Hp.,1967 Ford 3000) to rake up the hay that is to be baled with plenty of dew on in the morning and wrapped to make a  very sweet version of grass silage (or haylage). It was a rare treat. Sitting in the open air, ear muffs on, mobile phone completely ignored. The tractor sounds and smells almost identical to the 35 Hp. David Brown 770 my father bought new as his first tractor in 1969, at the age of 23;  that really took me back. (Incidentally, he still has that tractor, restored to all of its factory fresh glory). I have been working this land since well before the age of 10. We had 3 tractors when I  was a kid. The David Brown 770, a Case 995. And a case Agri King 970. My father, my brother  and myself spent many days in these rocky mountain fields getting dirty and dusty. I was hooked already then. It’s where I quickly learned the satisfaction and self worth a job well done can give. To this day it is that feeling, much more than money, that helps propel me forward. If there was any possibility of making a decent living in that way now I would certainly still be doing it. 

Will power and resilience. Two factors that will determine success or failure in this industry.  And then there’s straight up insanity…..I’m pretty sure I have a good measure of that too…..more than the average Joe. We often joke about adding something to our Elmridge  branded clothing, “Elmridge Farm, You don’t have to be crazy to work here; but it sure helps!”  And maybe an even stronger statement for the guy who dreamed up and then created most of what is Elmridge Farm (Suzanne is essential but she will happily agree that it is me that keeps inventing more trouble).

The reason will power and resilience are on my mind is that we are already staring down the  barrel of the second tropical storm of the season and it’s only July 8th. 

I have taken interest in what I guess you might call ‘practical psychology’ in the last couple of years. I find it has helped me greatly to navigate the treacheries of an industry that is way too much of an uphill battle and (thanks mainly to blind, unthinking bureaucracy coupled with what appears to be some pretty rapid climate change) is going to continue to become a steeper slope for those of us crazy enough to keep trying to climb. 

One book I’ve read (called Grit) clearly defines will power as a finite resource in anyone. Some of us have more and some of us have less but it is absolutely not endless. I can easily see it dwindle within myself as each day progresses and also as a seasonal ebb as we get busy and try to navigate yet another season. What we know as burnout, is the result of more or less the longer term version of running out of will power. How quickly we can pull ourselves back together after our will power runs out is the resilience part of it. I can say with complete certainty, watching what makes many others collapse under pressure, that the vast majority of farmers have honed their grit or will power and resiliency to a level much higher than the average population. If I was dropped into the role I now play in Elmridge Farm and the industry when I was 25 it would easily have crushed me. I can’t say I enjoy the weight on my shoulders but somehow it hasn’t killed me and (because I must truly be crazy) I seem to find the energy to create more trouble for myself and Suzanne in the name of staying economically viable. 

Interestingly (but not really surprisingly) various government and service entities have latched onto the idea of resilience as a way to keep the farm community going. And, very annoyingly,  they seem to think that by bombarding us with “how to’s” and seminars on building resiliency they can somehow get the farmers to accomplish more for less and keep the illusion of cheap food alive. There seems to be no end to the number of organizations with all kinds of advice and “support” but no one seems interested in offering material help or real solutions that will reduce the amount of crazy required to farm. And they’re not crazy, we know that because they aren’t farming; they’re just cheering from the sidelines. 

So as my well honed grit and resilience is getting worn down already with the bulk of the season yet to come I would like to underline the fact that climate is changing and bureaucracy continues to erode any possibility of agriculture thriving in this province (and even in Canada,  of all things; Canadian food security has been eroded directly as a result of food processing moving out of the country because government regulation generally makes all but the very largest scale food processing unprofitable). In most cases, people seem blind or complicit of the facts. I see some token efforts to improve the situation but at this rate, it will be way too little, too late! 

So there’s a snapshot of some of what is going on in my head. I wrote most of this Wednesday evening. It’s now 6:00 Thursday morning and a quick check of the National Hurricane Centre website tells me the storm is still headed our way.  

The crops I worry about most are beans, peppers and tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, and of course, sweet corn. We just started picking beans yesterday. The first planting of beans is always the most profitable. We will only have picked about 10% of it by the time this storm is to move through Friday overnight and, with this crop, in particular, we stand a very good chance of severe damage if wind and rain reach even 80 kph. And moderate damage with wind at  50kph.

It’s not likely to do catastrophic damage to most crops but, right now, it seems like it could very easily be another proverbial straw on the camel’s back and this camel is getting tired. We will likely win this latest battle but I worry that we might not win the war. 

Keep eating your veggies!