By Mel Luymes
Last month, I finally got back on the road. I was delivering field signs and making videos with farmers for the #SoilRoadTrip, covering the roads between Peterborough, Lion’s Head, Leamington and Niagara. It was an epic crop tour, and it was great to reconnect with farmers I hadn’t seen in a long time.
The last leg of the trip took me across the sand plains and Norfolk County, where I stopped in to see a vegetable grower who caught me up on his struggles having foreign temporary workers this year and last.
I had heard that the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) and Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) were wrapped up in red tape, but my blood boiled as he described the building permits, paperwork, arbitrary regulations, delays and inspections that nearly cost him the family business he spent his whole life creating.
Despite all the funding for Foodland Ontario branding and Local Food Week, it seems as if our own bureaucracies are doing everything in their power to destroy Ontario’s horticultural sector. Despite 355,000 Ontarians losing their jobs in 2020 due to the pandemic, fruit and vegetable growers were still desperate for labour. Ontarians simply don’t want to do the work so, until the robots come, we have a choice: either we import all our produce, or we import labour. But, I digress.
As this farmer described the pettiness and downright arrogance of some of the “public servants” that had, essentially, bullied him, his family and his farm crew over the last 16 months, I was left with an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness. I can’t even imagine the frustration, anger and bitterness that growers like him continue to experience, all while grain farmers up here have a pretty decent time of it.
We’re disconnected – between counties, between commodities. And, let’s be honest, this pandemic has only exacerbated the gaps that were already here. Farm labour, local food, rural internet, and mental health (among many others) have long been issues that the agricultural community has been trying to address.
The pandemic has kept us apart. But it gets me wondering if disconnection is the root of the evils and inefficiencies of bureaucracies too, ie. government Ministries not working together, policy staff utterly disconnected from the real-world of agriculture, etc.
I’ve got to know a few federal bureaucrats over the last year doing some contract work for one of their new programs and one of the first things I learned is, well apparently, they don’t like being called bureaucrats. I got on a Zoom call last month feeling extremely frustrated with them, but at the end of the call I only felt sorry for them. These are well-meaning people struggling day-in and day-out within the same pettiness and restrictions, like farmers do. They spin their wheels and don’t get traction either. But they do have job security, good pay and a pension … just saying.
This sense of helplessness feels, to me, like grief. We are told we have the collective power to determine how we are governed, but most days I don’t feel much sense of power to make things better. No matter where we stood on the health issues, the decisions made and the restrictions we faced over the last year and a half has had us all questioning our government, our freedom and our power.
It’s not only the grief of losing loved ones or not being able to see them, but sometimes I feel we’re having a collective existential crisis.
And it would be so easy for us to shut down and stay angry, stay bitter, block everyone out. Many do. But, we can’t let this grief and frustration take our lives, our love and our laughter away. It takes courage to keep our hearts open. For myself, I have to believe that we are all doing the best that we can. Even politicians and bureaucrats.
And if it is true that disconnection is what has us well-meaning humans spinning out of control, then maybe the solution is to reach out and connect? What would Ontario look like in 10 years if all farmers made deliberate, honest and inspiring connections between counties and commodities, with government policy staff, with neighbours and urban consumers?
It sounds exhausting. But so is spinning our wheels and dealing with red tape.
On the last Zoom call with the federal staff, I mustered courage and I spoke up about what had me frustrated. Instead of shutting down, I leaned in and was vulnerable. I shared with them how their actions were affecting my livelihood and my mental health. I thought it moved the conversation forward and helped us connect on a more honest level, as fellow human beings.
But the next day, a manager called me to say that was highly unprofessional (in her opinion) and I was not to speak out of turn again. I wanted to scream. (Well, after the call, I did.)
Still (ugh, teeth clenched!) I must keep my heart strong and open. I’m not talking about covering things up with a false positivity, puppies and rainbows. This grief and powerlessness hurts. It is real and it hurts a lot. But we can’t build a better government with bitterness. Anger won’t strengthen Ontario’s produce sector.
I hope that we can work through our anger and disappointment together, reach out to make new and real connections. Let’s start by standing behind our fruit and vegetable growers and our essential foreign workers. I think they could all use a big hug right about now. ◊