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Isolation brings even more challenges this planting season

This week, many of us are struggling  with coronavirus-driven isolation. But for most farmers, isolation is part the job.

Working in the fields or in the barn is usually a singular pursuit, either by choice or by necessity. Typically, farm machinery doesn’t have two or more seats. And even if it did, farmers would sometimes choose to work by themselves – independence, along with the satisfaction of succeeding by yourself, is what draws some farmers to the job.

But working alone on the farm has its drawbacks. Research from the University of Guelph shows that in some cases, isolation promotes mental stress and mental illness among farmers. It’s a problem that’s been building for years, and it’s hard to imagine that the added isolation everyone must practice to stem the COVID-19 spread will only fan the flame.

You’ll have read elsewhere in the Observer that almost half of Canada’s COVID-19 cases are now caused by spread in the community from an unknown source. The agriculture sector is not immune. Livestock producers need to connect with the community continually, as they move their animals, or the products of those animals (such as milk) to market.

Crop farmers may have had an easier time self-isolating for the past week or so, but that’s about to change. Planting time is just around the corner, which involves huge segments of the agriculture sector. Farmers are starting to take delivery of vital inputs such as seed, fertilizer and crop protection products. Without these inputs, there’s no crop. And we already know agriculture has been deemed an essential service, so it’s not as if these activities are frivolous or open for debate. Farmers’ needs must be met.

Across the country, and around the world, industry is working to ensure this happens.

And everyone in the sector is taking precautions to limit exposure.

For example, many farm suppliers are offering curbside delivery. Farmers are advised to call ahead for supplies and parts, so they can simply drive to their dealer and pick them up. Virtual businesses are already set up to deliver to the farm, but they too and their delivery agents must take extraordinary measures to limit exposure and implement physical distancing.

The province is trying to be helpful. It’s set up what it calls the Stop the Spread Business Information Line, 1-888-444-3659, to field questions about how emergency measures impact their business or employment.

The province and the federal government have done a great deal to support agriculture, make sure farmers can produce food and keep the country fed. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture issued a statement Wednesday, praising the efforts of the Ford and Trudeau governments for working together and going to bat for farmers, and reassuring citizens that the local food supply is strong and safe.

“Every part of our food chain – from inputs, primary production, transportation and processing, all the way to retail – is integral to ensuring Canadians have continued access to food during these difficult times,” said federation president Keith Currie.

So now, we wait to see if spring weather cooperates with farmers the same way governments have. Many farmers across Canada are feeling the sting of a rough 2019, owing to bed weather, low market prices and other factors they had nothing to do with, such as trade embargoes, rail strikes and rail blockades. They don’t need more rain and cold to thwart their progress.

And they don’t need more isolation than usual, either. But like the weather, they’ll have to put up with it. And like the rest of us, self-isolation means they’ll need to look online more than ever for support. A new farmers’ mental health course developed with University of Guelph expertise called In The Know is being piloted this spring, and it can’t come soon enough.

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