Lessons from 1918: looking after your health and safety during COVID-19

Nels Hansen homesteaded along the South Saskatchewan River. He and his daughter Beulah both survived the flu pandemic of 1918.

Growing up on my family’s farm in rural Saskatchewan, there were plenty of stories told about my pioneering ancestors, the ones who homesteaded what is now my uncle’s 115-year-old family farm on the shores of the South Saskatchewan River (now Lake Diefenbaker). And no story made more of an impression than how these settlers managed during the flu pandemic of 1918.

These pioneering families — the Kohnkes, the Hansens and the Foxes — all have unique stories of how they coped with the 1918 influenza. The Kohnke family was so stricken with the flu that the only one to escape the illness was the eldest son. He worked to care for his family and do all the farm chores. The Fox family was spared the worst of the illness, but spent much of their time preparing and delivering food to other families that were sick — no easy task in 1918-19.

The Hansen family was the unluckiest amongst the bunch. Unfortunately, my great-great grandmother and her daughter died on the same day in March 1919. In order to cope, my great-great grandfather sent his two youngest children to live with family in North Dakota. The stories of the Kohnkes, the Hansens and the Foxes all have one thing in common: resilience.

The COVID-19 situation is unprecedented in our time. It’s a strange and surreal time. We’ve been told that we need to all do our part, whether it’s flattening the curve by staying home, or looking after the sick or by growing the food to sustain our nation and the world. Each and every farmer is precious to the health and welfare of Canada. And that’s why it’s so important that every farmer, farm worker and farm family stay safe and healthy.

With a rough harvest last fall, there are many farmers pulling out their combines to finish taking the crops off. Calves are being born and seeding is just around the corner. The markets are volatile. Shipping and freight have many unknowns and cash flow is always a worry. This is all on top of the current pandemic situation. There are so many factors that are putting stress on Canada’s farmers and we all know, when someone is stressed, sometimes safety gets forgotten.

So now is the time, more than ever, to invest in yourself, in your farm, and in your family’s safety. Make some plans and some procedures on farm tasks. Take a step back and evaluate how exactly your farm can remain safe, functional and thriving. If you have children on your farm invest in their safety too. Safe play areas and assigning appropriate tasks are a couple of ways that you can do this. (Visit cultivatesafety.org to access great resources on keeping kids safe on the farm.)

This is a worrying time — it’s normal to feel some stress and anxiety. This is a time to support each other the best we can. Even if we can’t physically be together, staying in touch with loved ones and friends and talking can help. The Do More Ag Foundation lists some excellent resources at domore.ag/resources.

The Canadian Agricultural Safety Association has some great resources at casa-acsa.ca. (Including some free training for new or young workers, toolbox talks and even the Canada FarmSafe Plan.) There are also plenty of great farm safety resources produced by excellent organizations across Canada. If you need some direction or help finding them, send CASA an email at [email protected] or call (877) 452-2272.

Take care of yourselves and each other. After all, that’s the lesson from 1918, and it’s the way farm families operate. We’ll get through this — farmers, farm workers, farm families and farming communities are and always have been resilient.

Robin Anderson for the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association.

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