Rural child care faces a long road ahead

There is reason to be optimistic, but local initiatives will be key for implementation

“If there aren’t groups like us that are actively trying to bring attention back to this topic and keep it in front of the government and media, it will very likely get pushed aside.” – Jennifer Christie, Ag Women's Network.

The federal government has pledged $30 billion over the next five years to help offset the cost of early learning and child care services.

Its goal is to create a national child care system with costs of $10 per day for the average Canadian family.

The proposed program has created optimism that child care services for farmers could also become more of an option.

Why it matters: Farms are great places for kids to grow up, but also places of great danger for children. Improved rural child care programs could reduce that risk and provide more flexibility for farm families.

Cost is only one barrier to accessing child care for farm families – it’s having appropriate child care options available that meet the realities of farm life. 

There is a model in Ontario with the Durham Farm & Rural Family Resources (DFRFR) group in Durham Region. After several accidents involving fatalities of children on farms, the Women’s Institute of Bethesda Reach (in Durham region) began developing an on-farm childcare program in 1987 that continues today. 

“I bring the caregivers to my farm, show them and point out some of the hazards on a farm, things that kids may or may not get into so they are aware,” says Katelyn Larmer, DCRFR’s on-farm program coordinator. 

Larmer says the on-farm childcare program is used by 12-15 families each year, with some families using the program every week, while others use it as needed.

She also operates a dairy farm in Nestleton with her husband and in-laws, in addition to being a supply teacher. 

“We have friends from all over the province, and they ask, how do we do this? And I think we’ve been very fortunate to be able use partners to make this happen,” she says. “You kind of have to have someone take you under their wing to be able to offer something like this.” She thinks other counties could achieve similar results with the right kind of help. 

Timing right for rural childcare discussion?

The recent federal announcement, as part of the recent budget, coupled with the inequities in the workplace identified by the COVID-19 pandemic, has sparked renewed interest in trying to find possible solutions for rural child care by women working in agriculture and living in rural areas. Some members the Ag Women’s Network (AWN) say the timing could be right for their voices to be heard. 

Lack of child care options and prohibitive costs “is a topic that I’ve heard for many years is a challenge for the women in our networks,” AWN administrator and chairperson Jennifer Christie says. 

“If we can help advance this in some way, particularly in Ontario, where we have a very rural-friendly government right now, maybe there’s an opportunity that we can help be a part of it.” 

Christie says a group of volunteers from AWN is beginning discussions on what might be needed in child care options, and who the members could partner or link with to help ensure their voices are heard. 

Christie is cautiously optimistic. She notes that the most recent federal child care funding announcement is not the first, with two attempts by previous governments not panning out. The federal government’s $10 a day plan also requires that each province kick in funding – something that the Ontario government has shown little interest in doing. In fact, in its 2019 budget, the province said it would reduce provincial child care funding by 20 per cent in 2020, but this has been delayed due to the pandemic. 

“If there aren’t groups like us that are actively trying to bring attention back to this topic and keep it in front of the government and media, it will very likely get pushed aside,” says Christie. 

According to the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), having accessible, affordable and quality child care “remains a critical need in rural areas across Ontario.” 

However, the OFA says child care services are needed that can address the unique character of rural areas, including: seasonal fluctuations in the demand for child care, a scattered population with relatively few users for any one type of service, little public transportation and long travelling distances, the need for child care at the home of the child in cases where both parents work full or part-time on farm operations.

Tina Schankula, OFA policy analyst, says the importance of addressing rural child care has been a topic of discussion for the organization since she joined in the late 1990s. Although not a core issue for the OFA, it is an important one, she said. 

The OFA’s position is that there is not a once-size-fits-all model for child care, but what is required is a flexible program that could offer a range of services. Services could include options such as drop-in centres, kid camps and on-farm daycare. 

Schankula says the OFA supports the development of such programs, and presents its position on child care when the provincial government has pre-budget consultations. However, lack of government interest or funding commitments in the past means that farm families still don’t have the same options for child care as their urban counterparts. 

A working model

The Durham region model takes into account the variability in needs on farms.

With some initial federal funding, the Women’s Institute was able to hire college students studying early childhood education, create craft kits, purchase books and toys and sent the students out to farm families during the busy summer months. 

Subsequent funding from municipal sources, community donations, as well as an Ontario Trillium grant and partnerships with Ontario Early Years and the YMCA, the program has evolved to its current form. In recent years, the program has used the Canada Summer Jobs Grant to offset the costs of hiring students. 

Families pay $10 an hour for a caregiver, and the DCRFR uses the grant to pay a caregiver minimum wage plus mileage, says Larmer. The program operates from May to September, and is available to farm families who reside in the Region of Durham and where at least one of the parents’ primary source of income is through a farm operation. “The biggest selling feature of the program is having the caregiver come to the farm,” she says. 

In addition to supplying caregivers with crafts and books, the DCRFR provides them with safety training, as many of the students have not been on a farm before, says Larmer. 

Keeping the momentum going will be just one step. 

There’s a need for local action to create child care services, even if they are funded in a national program.

A 2016 report by the Toronto-based Childcare Resource and Research Unit called “Child care can’t wait until the cows come home: Rural child care in the Canadian context,” said that childcare has to be a local initiative. Difficulties include not only funding, but finding and retaining qualified staff, finding suitable physical facilities (if needed), and low enrolment.

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