With the support of the EFAO (Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario), our farm (Zócalo Organics) held a “Farmer Health Day” on Sunday July 10! I want to share with you some musings about why I felt motivated to plan and host this day, and some reflections from the day itself.
In the last 5 years of farming I’ve been able to access some incredible supports to help me cope with chronic health issues. The supports I needed weren’t always easy or quick to find. A therapist friend of mine once asked me the question I have often asked myself, “Farmers deal with so much, why are there no support groups for farmers?”
I get why people aren’t lining up to become farmers, or why people quit farming. Farming can stretch the body and mind, in a fast and furious way. Farming is often not forgiving; in a time of struggle everything can fall apart quickly. A week of missed weeding/planting/harvesting and the effects can reverberate for the rest of the season. It is a farmer’s job to try and maintain their crops or animals despite a myriad of unforeseen challenges that might arise in a season.
I believe that the body of a farmer quantifies and remembers the physical value of work that has been done. I think that my body remembers holding and planting seeds, it remembers lifting and pushing a cart full of transplants, it remembers being on its’ knees in the dirt with hands in the soil planting. A farmer’s body works incredibly hard physically for a certain outcome. When things don’t go as planned or when things fail I’ve often wondered how to let go of the physical memory of all this hard-work. It can be challenging to let go of how we envisioned things happening on our farms when we ask our bodies for so much.
Another thing I think about in relation to farmer health is the role that geography plays in isolating new farmers. I’ve had the experience of feeling impatient and uneasy with aspects of rural Ontario. Rural Ontario is simply not very diverse, and as a young, queer, female farmer I don’t always feel like I fit in. While my neighbours appreciate what we are doing, and we appreciate them- I crave a lively and diverse rural community that includes various ethnicities, generations, and values.
Despite the many challenges farming might present to a person’s health, I maintain that farming, especially ecologically, is the best profession there is. The rewards are so so so many! Which leads me back to the question of social and practical support- how do we support that quick-stretching at the beginning, and the continue stresses through-out a farming career. How do we strengthen our farming community so that geographical isolation or other factors that separate us don’t get in the way of our resilience individuals and, as a farming community?
Supporting one another comes naturally to farmers. Farmers are natural lenders of time, knowledge, supplies, breeding animals, and more. So it was not surprising to me that the people who showed up to our farmer health day were ready and eager to support one another in diverse and beautiful ways. Gathering with others from the ecological farm community and acknowledging the work we do on our farms has always been a powerful, and comforting experience. It may not be logistically easy to meet up with other ecological farmers (since we live all over and work a lot), but I never regret making the effort. Hosting the Farmer Health Day was one of many activities I hope that we come up with as a community to support farmer health.
What did we do together at our Farmer Health Day?
Through-out the day we offered workshops to farmers that related to both physical and mental health. We first did gentle yoga and breathing exercises to relax, then we learned some practical tips about how to be flexible farmers. We learned how to move our bodies and improve our physical fitness so that our energy for farming is more and we can farm safely! We had a delicious potluck lunch and continued with a workshop on Homeopathic first aid where we learned about an alternative to Western Medicine and talked about how homeopathic medicines are made. Lastly we discussed “Farmer Stress Management”, and were led in a discussion of how we can use our minds to respond, rather than react, to stresses on the farm.
At the same time as the workshops we had 4 local health practitioners offering treatments to farmers under a tent next to our flower garden outside the barn. There were many different modalities offered including osteopathy, reiki, indian head massage, foot reflexology, the body code, shiatsu massage! The healers were booked back-to-back all day long generously offering their services at reduced rates. The health practitioners were gracious and eager to support our farming community.
At the start of my own farming journey I didn’t know how much the physical demands of farming and the emotional stress of running a business would exacerbate my health issues. I spent a fair bit of time and effort seeking relevant supports that weren’t always there- and this experience is something I hope that not every farmer will have to go through in their journey. And facing challenges in isolation is something farmers often do, so we can all relate in so many ways. Our conversations and efforts at the Farmer Health Day revolved around the idea that together we have more resources and resilience. And healing together is a deeply generative experience which, for me, relates a lot to our aspirations as ecologically-mindful Farmers. We believe that it is important to pay attention to each part of a whole- whether that be a whole garden, a farm, a community, or a person’s body. Making and sustaining webs of life in all these areas makes for healthier food, farms, and people.
I am hoping that the work of the farmer health day can extend and inspire a casual and accessible network of mental and physical health supports for ecological farmers in Ontario. I want this network to include and engage mentor farmers as I feel they play a critical role in sharing the lessons they have learned in their many years of farming. Together let’s integrate farming into people’s lives in a way that is creative and balanced.
I look forward to coming events that the EFAO supports around the topic of farmer health, and I look forward to hosting future events! Farmer Health Days are just one of many ways we can strengthen our support networks and become more mindful and happy farmers.
(Be sure to support and check out the amazing EFAO, Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario, https://efao.ca)