Amanda and one of her workers in the orchard

Farm moms always work from home

Published On: August 1, 2021

Originally published in: The Grower.

At 5:30 am, the day stretches out like a cat. No such lounging luxury exists for the farm manager of Suncrest Orchards, Simcoe, Ontario. Amanda Dooney’s bare feet have hit the floor.

“I’m the farm mom,” explains Dooney, with two teenagers and 18 temporary foreign workers (TFWs) who are her “Jamaican family” when the work force is full strength. Her husband Hayden is general manager of the Norfolk Fruit Growers’ Association. Together, they purchased the home orchard near Simcoe in 2019, and acquired a second orchard near Waterford in 2020 for a total of 80 high-density apple acres. The past two years have taught the importance of stable accommodations and accommodating change.

Dooney was not born into a farm family, so the adaptation curve has been steeper than most. Not only was she learning about the new farm and the growing habits of its seven apple varieties, she was coping with the administrative burden of local, provincial and federal rules. When the whoosh of the pandemic arrived like a flock of unwanted starlings, every expenditure of energy was examined for relevance to the farm family.

“Essentially, I am responsible for human resources,” says Dooney, “and that includes everything from payroll to employee training, isolation and groceries. I had to tune my ear to the Jamaican accent to learn what was needed.”

Culturally appropriate foods for Jamaicans – such as tinned milk and bottled peppers – are a yes-yes. But most interestingly, she observed the healthy eating habits of TFWs that Canadians could learn to fuel their bodies for outdoor work. Some of their staples are chicken feet soup, brimming with collagen and minerals that are good for strong bones. Soup is on the stove on a year-round basis. Okra is a popular vegetable choice – “good for joints” they say.

Many Jamaican dishes are served on the bone. Head-to-tail eating is an old tradition in Jamaican culture, particularly when it comes to goat curry and jerk chicken. To cater to these food preferences, Dooney has installed a large chest freezer.

When Jamaican workers finally arrived in spring 2020, Dooney was tasked with training. COVID-19 was a clear and present danger, but she also warned about the detrimental effects of heat stress in the orchard. As temperatures spiked, she was buying Gatorade by the case and soon realized what an expensive outlay it was. Her tip? Buy powered electrolytes on the internet and add a scoop, as needed, to metal water bottles.

For each and every worker, there’s a home story. Dooney makes it her business to diarize the names of her workers’ wives and families. Every month, there’s an occasion to honour the birthdays of farm workers. Father’s Day is yet another party date on the farm calendar.

Every worker receives a week’s worth of branded Suncrest Orchards shirts, pants and baseball caps. Toques are available for the chilly months. This gesture is practical but, as Dooney notes, the workers are all part of the family team working towards a common goal.

Situated in the catchment of the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit, Suncrest Orchards is one of many farm employers adhering to the strictest standards in the country in terms of housing and isolating workers. In mid-July 2021, the unit reported about 3,800 TFWs in the counties. It’s not the largest concentration of TFWs in Canada, but has been the subject of media headlines and documentaries.

With negative coverage hopefully in the rear mirror, proactive building projects are underway. Dooney, for example, has promised her TFWs new living quarters by September 2021 apple harvest. Benefits include more spacious communal quarters with dishwasher and more privacy in bedrooms. More storage will be available for orchard gear. Air conditioning and temperature controls will be in each bedroom. New mattresses have already arrived.

It may take months or years before new housing recommendations become reality, so Dooney is plunging ahead on the premise that comfort comes first. With new apple acres coming into full production, she will need happy workers to pick the load.

Amanda Dooney’s story is one that’s familiar to the president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. Rooted in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Mary Robinson brings seasoned perspective to the issues encountered in the last year.

“It’s been tough,” says Robinson. “For farm men and women both, depending on your point of privilege – some by gender, race and birthright – your experience of the pandemic depends on where you are on the spectrum of your journey in life.”

For Robinson, she recounts how she was born into a family that’s been Island farming for 200 years. Her support mechanisms are a husband that looks after domestic chores plus a professional executive staff in Ottawa. Her kids are adults. She astutely points out another perspective. Think of a mother who’s working at Tim Horton’s with kids at home – for her, the last year’s experience is entirely different.

As a farm political leader, Robinson has learned to cut herself some slack.

“I’m making peace that my house is not perfect,” says Robinson. “My grandmother who was a major influence in my life would have said never to leave a dirty dish in the sink. But I’m learning that it’s not necessary to put these demands on ourselves. Check your expectations. And be joyful in the moment.”

Mary Robinson and Amanda Dooney have never met. But some of this wisdom is already in evidence at Suncrest Orchards.

At the end of a long day, Dooney saddles up her horse and rides to the back of the farm where there is a newly reclaimed pond, native grasses and flowers. There’s a peace here, punctuated by a bullfrog, that’s just rejuvenating enough to kickstart another long day tomorrow.