May 28, 2020

Life on one New Hamburg farm has changed drastically since the COVID-19 outbreak.

But even amid safety concerns and looming labour issues, deliveries have kept going.

“After SARS, there was a lot of talk about pandemic preparedness,” Jenn Pfenning, who runs Pfenning’s Farms with her family, said Wednesday.

“I’ve thought about how we would need to adapt.”

Pfenning’s is one of the biggest organic vegetable farms in Ontario. And what’s happening on the 700-acre plot is very much a microcosm of what’s happening on farms across the province.

The office and warehouse are on a kind of lockdown to prevent the possible spread of the novel coronavirus into the food supply system — doors are locked from the outside and the public are being asked to stay away.

Even Pfenning’s truck drivers are encouraged not to go inside, except to go to the washroom, for fear of contamination.

“We’ve asked our team to take more extreme precautions than the average person,” said Pfenning, such as limiting contact with other people, including close family members.

In the almost four decades of the farm’s existence, Pfenning says she’s never had to endure anything like it, but it hasn’t stopped her or her staff from showing up to do what they see as essential work.

The pandemic has also put a strain on labour.

Pfenning’s employs 35 temporary foreign workers from Jamaica each year, representing 20 per cent of their peak staffing numbers, but travel restrictions mean they might not be here in time for planting season.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Monday that Canada was closing its borders to non-residents due to COVID-19. No exception was made for the thousands of migrant workers that Canadian farmers employ, bringing condemnation from agriculture advocates.

Pfenning’s said it’s a fairly urgent situation and hopes the government will work with industry to come up with a solution.

Pfenning’s Farm in New Hamburg is one of the biggest organic vegetable farms in Ontario. (Patrick Spencer / Spoke)

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), which represents 38,000 farm families across the province, released a statement on Wednesday echoing her concerns: “If this workforce is not available to our industry, Canadians will have limited access to fresh produce in our peak growing season.”

On Wednesday night, after this interview was conducted, the Toronto Star reported that the federal government might lift travel restrictions for migrant workers after all, which could bring relief to operations like Pfenning’s. But the Star also spoke to farmer’s groups who criticized the move, saying the ban would only be lifted for migrants coming in from the United States, creating confusion about how the travel restrictions would be lifted, if at all.

The staff currently working at Pfenning’s have also had their hands full due to the shopping frenzies spurred on by the COVID-19 outbreak.

For the last few days, they’ve had an extra truck on the road making deliveries. Staff packed vegetables over the past weekend, when they usually have the days off.

They are farmers on the frontlines.

Pfenning also had a message for members of the public who might be concerned about seeing empty shelves.

“We’re at a low point for local food, but that’s normal,” she said. Storage crops from last year are dwindling, but the growing season is around the corner, which will replenish many items.

The OFA said earlier this week that food security would remain “strong” during the pandemic.

Pfenning also said a little calm could go a long way.

“Hoarding is going to lead to waste. … We have the warehouses and temperature controls to store food better than you have in your house.”

“Panic and pandemonium will only make everything worse … Don’t worry. Most of us in the neighbourhood care about everyone else.”

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