November 19, 2020
By: Merike Hess & Bernadette Antoniou

Staff working in warehouse wearing face masks and gloves.
Our team has adapted to new strict protocols to keep each other safe.

In January of this year, Covid-19 was something that was happening only on the other side of the world; in just three short months, it spread to all parts of the globe. On March 11, a global pandemic was declared by the World Health Organization.  Shortly after that, Canada started going into lockdown in steps. Economies ground to a halt, and leaders everywhere pleaded with people to stay home. Never did we imagine that this situation would last so many months and make 2020 a year of big and likely permanent changes for us all. 

All of us from government leaders to individuals struggled to sort out information and take the best actions possible to stay safe.  Many people turned to working from home while some had to stop working entirely.  Schools shut down for March break and have only just reopened in varying capacities in September. Lives and livelihoods have been on the line for much of this year. 

A crisis has a way of bringing out both the best and the worst in people, and worldwide there are plenty of examples of both.  Panic buying began with toilet paper, hand sanitizer, masks and gloves.  Shelf stable food items like pasta and canned goods flew off the shelves as well.  In April we were on to hair dye and hair clippers. Conspiracy theories and quack cures circulated.  

But – there has been so much good to celebrate amidst all of this gloom!  People in quarantine singing from their balconies to create a sense of togetherness while physically apart, convoys of police, firefighters or even tractors driving past hospitals in salute to the medical care workers who are working so hard and sacrificing so much.  Companies that, without being asked, switched gears from their regular business to doing something else needed in the crisis! Breweries and distilleries began making hand sanitizer instead of their brews and factories began manufacturing PPE supplies. Hordes of volunteers have been making masks and gowns. Towns across the country have made signs in windows and on lawns encouraging each other and expressing gratitude for essential workers.  People have been checking in on each other more than ever before, and have found ways to bring food, joy and other necessities to those stuck in isolation. Everyone is trying their best to find small silver linings and support one another – from a safe distance of 6 feet.

Essential workers.
Pfenning’s was included in Grand Magazine’s essential workers feature in May.

Daily Life

As an essential service, we have been grateful that we can continue to serve our communities with our customers’ support.  But here on the farm, our lives have changed too.  Our favourite community events such as our market day and farm tours have been been cancelled.  There isn’t a single one of us here who doesn’t have an especially vulnerable loved one they are particularly concerned about.  As people started panic buying, staple items like carrots, onions and potatoes became hot commodities, and our sales increased greatly. 

As we have in almost every aspect of our lives since March, we have had to make many changes in routine at the farm. Since we have a large team of over 100 people and many work in multiple areas of the farm, we had to implement protocols to separate our staff into cohorts. This limits exposure to one smaller area if there were to be a case. Temperature measuring has become a new normal for us, with a team representative measuring and recording each person’s temperature each and every time they arrive to work.

Jenn Pfenning measuring a team member's temperature before they start their work day.
Jenn Pfenning measuring a team member’s temperature before they start their work day.

Masks were also an immediate change, with everyone required to wear one indoors, AND outdoors if social distancing is not possible. This presented a challenge throughout the hottest summer months for field workers, keeping faces covered when working in close proximity in the direct sun all day. Custom Pfenning’s masks were ordered for all staff. Two masks for each person; one to wear and one to wash! And on the topic of washing… we have become nearly obsessed with sanitization. We sanitize all common surfaces every hour.

Due to the cohort system, trying to limit people’s work ‘bubbles’, meetings and lunch breaks have been separated into small groups as well and have almost exclusively taken place outside. We have had to lock doors between cohorts and ask that staff call and email each other to limit movement between workstations and time spent face-to-face (with masks on of course). Now that the weather is getting colder here in Ontario, this will present new challenges for us to creatively overcome. Thus far, Tristan has built outdoor dining shelters to extend our outdoor lunch season comfortably, and for as long as possible.

Tristan built our outdoor dining shelters to allow our team to keep eating in their cohorts into the colder months.
Tristan built our outdoor dining shelters to allow our team to keep eating in their cohorts into the colder months.

Customers

As an essential service, we felt an immense sense of responsibility for continuing to serve our customers with the same quality and efficiency while navigating the changes in our supply chains and systems during these difficult times. We have been proud to rise to the challenge. Many of our customers have had to pivot and we have done our best to work alongside them. Restaurants have been suffering due to shutdowns and limited capacity, but they have also been showing great resiliency as they switch gears to takeout/delivery and new business models. Food box services have been booming, and some are even at capacity. Our retailers have had struggles in their own ways since the original boom when everyone stockpiled groceries. All indoor spaces have had to install new safety measures including PPE barriers, and come up with creative ways to ensure social distancing.

A few months into quarantine our Bounty By The Box food box program was born. This has been an interesting and challenging pivot for Pfenning’s as well since as a wholesale operation, we do not usually sell directly to the public. Our local Wilmot community was looking for more options to obtain healthy food, and it was important to us that we try to meet that need. Thus, we created our curated organic food boxes for pick up straight from the farm.

Our organic Bounty By the Box food boxes.
A sample of one of our organic Bounty By the Box food boxes.

Drivers

Our drivers, as always, are a big part of the backbone of Pfenning’s. Like the rest of us on the farm, our driving team kept on doing what they do – deliveries of fresh produce were made every day while adhering to new safety protocols. During the height of lockdown, the eerily empty roads gave our Toronto drivers a silver lining! The break from the usually congested traffic made driving far less stressful – for a while.

Ekk and Markus delivering broccoli.
Ekk and Markus delivering broccoli.

Migrant Workers

As we all know, once a global pandemic was declared, one of the first things to shutdown was international travel. Our farm heavily relies on the help of our migrant worker staff primarily from Jamaica, and worried they would never make it to Canada! We had heard many horror stories of outbreaks on farms throughout Ontario due to close living and working conditions and improper quarantining of international staff. We were stuck wondering can they come? When? And what do we have to do to keep them and our communities safe? The Canadian government offered support for farmers to keep our migrant workers safe during the pandemic, helping us to be able to navigate this challenge and prevent outbreaks. Thankfully, in the months from May to July, after mountains of paper work, working with public health and organizing travel, we were able to get almost all of our migrant workers to join us safely this season! A huge thank you to Jenn and Racheal for working so hard for many months to make this happen!

Jenn and Racheal were in constant communication with public health as new policies unfolded. Bunk houses were updated and a new bunk house was built to allow for safe distancing measures. Groups of workers were brought in to self-isolate together to create a social bubble and food and other necessities were brought safely to them. Extra health and wellness checks were made daily routine for all of our migrant workers, making sure everyone was coping with this stressful situation. Being away from their families was extra hard this year, with COVID not only being a source of worry for the illness itself, but increasing the sense of isolation from others. Quarantine days were counted down with excitement and everyone was able to reunite with our team safely!

Pfenning’s was proudly featured by CTV (in print and in the news) and the Waterloo Record, discussing migrant worker rights and challenges in the times of COVID-19. Jenn has been an advocate for migrant worker rights for many years and while it took a crisis for more people to become aware of these issues, we are hopeful that lasting positive change is on the way.

You can find some further reading on migrant worker rights and advocacy here and here.

Reflections

The events surrounding COVID-19 have brought to light many things in dire need of change, such as conditions in nursing homes, labour and migrant worker rights, sustainable food systems, and the importance of keeping work in Canada. On an even broader scale the Black Lives Matter movement has also been brought to the forefront. There is so much work to be done, and 2020 has forced these issues into the limelight – hopefully resulting in some long-overdue changes. This remains to be seen; we can only look forward with hope and determination.

We want to thank all of our staff, partners, and community for standing with us through this whirlwind of a year! It has definitely been one for the books, and it’s not even quite over yet. It is easy to feel disheartened as the situation continues, and we are looking ahead to a long winter. We take comfort and inspiration from each other, and always remember that we are all in this together (even though we may feel alone sometimes). Community spirit is still easy to find when you take a moment to look for it!

Warehouse worker, Josue, smiling wearing a mask, toque and gloves.
Keeping our spirits up while keeping up with new health protocols has made this year a little bit easier.