For mothers raising families on a busy farm while maintaining careers, balance is as easy to find as a needle in a haystack. Covid-19 has just added complexity and made that balance more elusive.
The modern woman is expected to handle everything thrown her way. She may be the primary caretaker of her children, overseeing their general wellbeing. She bears the brunt of household duties, ensuring groceries are in the fridge and clean clothes are in the dressers. She may work outside of the home, finding joy and accomplishment in the mental stimulation and social interaction it brings.
Together, all these responsibilities are quite the handful. But how does that change when you add two more enormous balls—farming and Covid-19—into an already impressive juggling routine?
Women account for almost 30 percent of farm operators in Canada, and, like many of their sisters, they hustle constantly. Whether it’s planting the year’s crops or harvesting, nurturing an abundant herd of livestock or marketing it, or everything in between, they don’t stop because they can’t. Farming is more than a full-time job; it’s often one that’s on-call 24/7, leaving little time for anything else when busy seasons arrive.
Two case studies, similar challenges
For Diana Spelt of Bentley, Alberta, hustling is one of her top skills. A farmer with over one hundred lambs and half that number in chickens, Diana also operates her own coffee shop business, assists her husband with his trucking operation, looks after the home and kids, and homeschools her two children because of Covid-19. Despite all those large responsibilities, she finds time to give back to her community, volunteering as a Scout leader.
Diana’s days start at the crack of dawn. While her husband conducts the morning livestock checks, Diana toils at her coffee shop until mid-morning then she returns home to complete two to three hours of schoolwork with her kids. Diana’s afternoons consist of running around fulfilling business needs, checking in on her herd and finishing daily chores, chauffeuring children to socially-distant activities, and finally closing up for the day at the coffee shop. A much-needed night of relaxation usually gives way to baking preparation for her business the next day. And weekends? Those glorious two days where many of us snuggle up on the couch with Netflix? For Diana, those are filled with business paperwork, running for equipment parts, delivering trucks, and other jobs that can’t be put off.
Brandy Beischer of Russell, Manitoba, stars in a similar juggling act, once balanced but now feeling uneasy due to Covid-19. Brandy works full time as a chemical representative, farms 5,000 acres with her father and brother, and balances a blended family of five children who often require online learning, at one point homeschooling all five because of Covid-19 school closures. When she can scrounge up time, Brandy also contributes to volunteer activities scheduled around her busy seasons of spring and fall.
Covid-19 has significantly reduced the amount of time Brandy now has to spend travelling as a chemical representative. The hours once spent on the road are now filled with getting children out the door or setting up online learning, working from home, making meals, and multi-tasking between laundry and webinars. Weekends and holidays are reserved for farming, harrowing, swathing, trucking, or combining depending on the season.
Before the Coronavirus and the additional obligations it brought, Diana reflected that her days were busy, but manageable. “Jobs weren’t rushed, and anything could be done tomorrow.”
Brandy has noticed much less foresight was needed pre-Covid planning how jobs had to be done. She reflects, too, on the things taken for granted.
Over a year into this global pandemic, isolation and overstimulation reign supreme. For Brandy, Covid-19 has clouded her once social days with a fog of isolation on both the professional and family front.
“I find joy in comradery, and I’m no longer getting that to the same extent. The full family farm experience is no more.” Once school started, Brandy’s children rarely visited the farm to limit exposure to other family members. “Big family suppers were no more.”
Related: Ranching: A Family Enterprise
Diana also describes her days now as very hectic. While she has technically “slowed down,” she feels overwhelmed with the mountain that has been piled onto her plate. She adds that the ongoing release and updates of information regarding the pandemic have caused her to become overstimulated.
Coping Mechanisms and Self-Care for Female Farmers
A 2016 University of Guelph survey found 45 per cent of Canadian farmers experienced high stress levels, 58 per cent had symptoms of anxiety, and 35 per cent met the criteria for depression. While men are more likely to experience normal to mild anxiety, women scored in the moderate to severe range. These numbers are reflected in the tales told by Brandy and Diana. Burnout also becomes a looming possibility when farmers can’t get enough rest.
So what balls, if any, are dropped from the juggling act when warp speed is hit? Diana and Brandy are learning that prioritizing what matters most is a coping mechanism for such times.
Diana was quick to admit that during lambing, not a lot of schoolwork got done. Between constantly checking her herd and preparing for new babies, there was no way everything could get accomplished. Her role as a Scout volunteer was also reduced, mainly due to Covid, and household duties were delegated as best as possible to her kids.
“You make sure they can look after themselves and get them to be independent,” Diana says, wryly noting “Feed yourself” was the motto during lambing season.
“Drop things that don’t matter, and focus on the big rocks,” is Brandy’s guiding principle. Brandy delegated the kids to do a lot of the physical household chores while she’s still in charge and oversees the home.
“I’m still being a mom from the grain cart and disciplining from a tractor,” Brandy says. When Brandy homeschools her kids, only half days are spent on schoolwork while the remainder she takes them on the road with her to juggle obligations. Community service is reduced from her list, too, when her schedule becomes too much.
Before the pandemic, much more support was available to these hustling ladies. Now, family has been their rock. In-laws and partners have become godsends when they can offer assistance, helping with lambing and the children if needed.
Downtime—this precious thing these ladies seem to have none of—is filled to some extent with self-care. Physical health and relaxation become priorities. Bubble baths and hair appointments independent of the kids are favourite escapes of Brandy’s. Diana, on the other hand, finds solace in yoga twice a week and physiotherapy. Currently setting up a home gym, Diana is committed to making time for herself.
Even so, rural living means ladies must get creative with downtime, or any time for that matter, as options are restricted by distance. Self-care city style isn’t convenient and rarely possible for these rural women. Traveling back and forth from town or the nearest city has a huge impact on their day, especially when farming is in full swing, eating up as much as two hours to run a simple errand like getting groceries.
“You do without, and learn to maintain your wellbeing with less, asking yourself if you really need that,” Diana says. No drop-in appointments for these women. Going to a gym to get in a work out or treating yourself to a manicure/pedicure has to be planned days in advance, if it can be scheduled at all.
If one thing can be said for certain, it’s that women farmers are a tough lot. Are their lives chaotic? Yes, but they try to find balance and practice self-care in small pockets of their days. Covid-19 hasn’t made their jobs easier by any means, but it has certainly made them adapt to be more resilient and efficient (if that’s even possible). If not inspirational, these ladies are role models to many young women and future producers, proving that parenting from a tractor, balancing from a barn, and doing it all is possible.
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.