Mary and Roelof van Bentham were looking forward to a year of learning and creating connections when they were named Outstanding Young Farmers for Alberta.
But just over a month later, COVID-19 hit.
“That’s one of the things that made the pandemic really hard — we’ve had a hard time connecting with this group that we’ve been honoured to be part of,” said Mary van Bentham, who operates a dairy farm near Spruce View with her husband.
“We haven’t really been able to build those relationships yet. We know that support system is there, but it’s one of those things where you need to build those experiences and relationships. It doesn’t happen automatically.”
One of the main draws of the Outstanding Young Farmers (OYF) program is the networking.
“We’re still getting to meet people and build those relationships, but there’s only so much you can do when you’re not face to face,” she said.
Normally, each regional winner travels to the national event to share their farm’s story and connect with their fellow nominees.
“Even though it was more than a year ago that we became the OYF winners for Alberta, it feels like we lost that year. But we’re getting to it,” she said, adding that they will be honoured at this year’s event.
“We’re lucky that they’ve decided to push us into this year’s nationals so that we don’t lose it — we get it this year. It’s just delayed.”
Natasha Pospisil and Dallas Vert, the province’s 2019 winners, struggled with the disconnect as well.
“We definitely missed out on getting to actually see people, especially on the regional side,” said Pospisil.
“You can never beat a face-to-face — getting together and having a couple of drinks and laughs is always good,” Vert added.
But like so many, the farm couple from Kirriemuir made do.
“It was an opportunity to be creative and still connect with people via Zoom or group chat or phone calls,” said Vert. “Just because you can’t meet in person doesn’t mean there’s a total disconnect there.”
“Even though we’re all spread out, it was just good to know that there were people who could relate,” added Pospisil. “Even if it was just reaching out to say hi, just knowing they were there helped. That’s a comforting feeling.”
Having that built-in support system came in handy during the hardships of the pandemic, said Jinel Ference, who won in 2018 with husband Craig.
“It’s great because you know you can always reach out to people and everybody has your back,” said Ference, who also farms near Kirriemuir. “If you need to reach out, they’ll give you support. Even though we weren’t in person, we knew that there were people there for us.”
The Alberta network made a special point of staying connected with last year’s winners, she added.
“The van Benthams didn’t get the same experience that most people get in their first year, so we tried to check in on them and reach out to them,” said Ference.
And both the regional and national committees helped with that, hosting virtual events over Zoom to allow for some learning and socializing.
“This February, we couldn’t have an in-person event like we normally would, but we did have an online event where everybody got together,” said Ference. “That was awesome. We got to see people’s faces, and everybody chatted.”
It got better earlier this month when the van Benthams hosted a potluck at their farm for some OYF members.
“It was so great to get together in person,” she said. “We really enjoyed being able to walk around our farm and visit with the alumni. Hearing their stories of memorable OYF moments or farming history gave us a snapshot of the camaraderie and wealth of knowledge within this group. With each event, we look more forward to the next — what a great group to be a part of!”
Van Bentham is also looking forward to experiencing first-hand some of the other benefits of being part of the program, including tapping into the alumni network that dates back to 1980.
“When it came to OYF, we didn’t really know what it was until we were nominated. But then it really clicked for us how important this program is to agriculture,” she said.
“There are so many benefits to this program for young farmers. We see the benefits even though we haven’t really been able to experience them yet.”
The program offers some much-needed recognition for an often thankless job, added van Bentham.
“People deserve that recognition for their hard work,” she said, adding that’s particularly important for young farmers. “It builds your confidence in yourself and in your business. Everyone who is starting out and learning has those doubts. You question every decision you make.
“So when you get that recognition — that affirmation that you’re doing a good job — it can only be good for you.”
For Pospisil, participating in OYF has also led to other opportunities to contribute to Alberta’s agriculture industry.
“We’ve had people reach out to us and ask us to sit on different boards because they’ve become aware of what we’re doing,” she said.
“You sometimes underestimate — at least I did — the value that you can contribute in other areas through your knowledge of farming and through your connection to the OYF program.”
Nominations are now open (until Sept. 30) for the next edition of the program, which is open to farm operators between the ages of 18 and 39, with at least two-thirds of their income from farming.
“If you know somebody, encourage them to be part of the program and nominate them if they’re willing to take part,” said Ference. “The OYF group is just so positive and uplifting.
“Everybody has agriculture in their hearts. It doesn’t matter which sector you’re in, everyone is just genuinely happy to be in agriculture and to share their experiences.
“It’s one of the greatest groups of people you can be around.”
To nominate a farmer, visit calltofarms.ca.