In an age of change and unexpected challenges, coming together to work for the greater good, to speak as one voice representing many is one way for folks to not just survive but thrive. Such is the philosophy inspiring the work of the Holland Marsh Growers Association.
Headed up by Jody Mott, and assisted by a board of directors, the HMGA represents those farming the approximately 7,000 acres of marshland and another 800 acres of highlands encompassing the nationally renowned agricultural centrepiece of Ontario. Sixty-six different types of fruit and vegetables are grown in the area, supplying the varied and diverse food industry with the raw materials needed to keep folks healthy. At present, there are 125 farms within the Marsh, farms that not only grow the crops, but are also involved in storing, processing and packaging them as well, keeping the distribution chain taut and efficient, ensuring freshness.
“The mandate is to help the farmers of this area with the red tape, with the issues they face every day. We are the voice of farmers. We deal with anything from municipal permits to water-taking permits from the Province to dealing with federal issues of shipping across the border, and everything in between,” said Mott, executive director of the Association.
“On a day-to-day basis, we look at the issues that farmers are facing to make sure their voice is heard at the table where important decisions are being made. We are all about working on getting solutions for our farmers.”
The incredible sense of dislocation and uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that has been ongoing since the first quarter of 2020 presented a huge challenge for the HMGA – one that Mott and the leadership of the organization met head on, and with great success.
Rules, regulations, processes and procedures were changing seemingly by the minute, making it difficult for even the most attentive of entrepreneurs, let alone the already overworked and overstressed farmers and workers in the Holland Marsh, to follow. So, maintaining the lines of communication and helping farmers stay up to date was one aspect of the challenge, the second came with the onset of the vaccines.
“As part of the association’s responsibilities we made sure everybody knew the proper protocols and was up to date on issues of workplace safety and the mandates coming from the Health Unit. We were the lead on that piece for the Marsh. As soon as something new came across, we published the information as soon as possible,” Mott explained.
“We worked very close with the Health Unit from the very beginning. We were able to set up weekly meetings, so we had open communications for any of the farmers to health information. We also worked shoulder to shoulder with the provincial and federal agencies to make sure that the [out of country seasonal workers] were able to come in. Once the vaccines were available, we facilitated both the first and second doses for the agriculture community by doing more than 8,000 vaccines. We also set up a system for the workers going home to get their COVID tests right before they got on the plane.”
Then there was the panic that ensued over the first few months of the pandemic, with people rushing to stores to hoard food. This meant it was all hands-on deck to try and accelerate food production, processing and shipping from the growers in the Holland Marsh.
“We had to step up right away. Everybody had to put their heads down and start pushing out vegetables as you started seeing the store shelves get bare. Collectively, with a lot of co-ordination and communication we were able to sustain the food supply that everybody needed to be able to stay in their homes and cook and eat well at home,” Mott said.
Understanding the fickle nature of the global economy and the high level of competition, the sometimes razor-thin risk/reward ration in the farming sector, the HMGA is helping its members stay on top of new growing processes, advances in technology and ways to improve and enhance sustainability, both for each farm’s business model, but also the land itself.
That is why the organization applied for and received funding from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) to participate in a series of on-farm projects to aid in these goals. The program is broken into six different, but interrelated activities. These include: ‘Identifying Opportunities for Water Use Efficiencies at Packing Level & Farm Irrigation Systems’; ‘Soil Health Improvements through new best practices development using Cover Crops and Soil Amendment Material’; ‘Waste Reduction Survey on Vegetable Culls and Re-cycling of Plastics’; ‘Modifying Equipment for Reducing Soil Loss at Washing or In-field’; ‘Safe Water for Irrigation’ and ‘Weed Control Using New Technologies.’ The last of these, Mott said, feature the use of drones to help in the weeding process.
“We are always looking at new technology to give the farmers the tools they need to make the right choices for their farms. Some embrace new technologies right away, taking a leadership position, and you can see others following in their footsteps, getting a new kind of harvester for example,” Mott said.
“We have also been pushing the notion of cover crops as an aspect of sustainability for the fields. Five years ago, when we started talking about this, we had one farm doing cover crops. Now we have over 60 per cent of the Marsh, to one degree or another, doing cover crops to help the soil.”
COVID changed many things irreparable creating what many call the ‘new normal,’ And that’s the same for the Holland Marsh Growers Association.
“Once things have kind of settled down, we are going to be reviewing our goals and initiatives, because COVID brought a lot of things to light for us that we didn’t even think of before. It really demonstrated the importance of having a regional growers association for this area. After we got our vaccines taken care of, we actually reached out to the local Health Units to get other farmers done in the area, because the officials didn’t know how to reach them as a group. And we are always looking at other ways we can serve the famers and any other needs they have, and what that will look like going forward,” Mott said.