The French family has been farming in southern Ontario for more than 100 years. Based at Lennox Farm in Dufferin County, the Frenches have long relied on migrant workers from Trinidad and Tobago to help them, especially during early planting season.
Trinidad and Tobago closed its borders in March 2020 due to COVID-19, so Brian and Jeannette French and their three children spent every day planting what they could. By June, six of their usual 12 migrant workers had arrived in Canada, but the damage from the early season shortfall in crops and production was done.
Beginning last spring, Toronto-based photographer Paul Bettings chronicled life at Lennox Farm, focusing on portraits of the migrant workers and the inner workings of a family farm—which most of the general population knows little about. We spoke to Bettings recently about his ongoing shoot.
Mountain Life: Could you talk about what led you to this project?
Paul Bettings: Much of my work in photography is for international aid and development organizations companies implementing a wide range of projects across the globe. When COVID-19 took over our planet, travel was one of the first items removed from our daily routines. I had several trips lined up and all of them were cancelled almost overnight.
I undertook a photographic project called Distancing, telling the story of Canadians as we dealt with the pandemic. Through this project I met Brian and Jeanette French at Lennox Farm.
Brian and Jeanette offered a wealth of knowledge about food and our food system, farming, migrant workers, soil structure and so much more. As we carefully kept a six-foot distance and walked around their farm, they flooded me with information that was both enlightening and, in some ways, scary. They talked about the fragile food supply chain and the significance of migrant workers as integral to that system. Without these migrant workers, many of whom they called friends after decades of working together, they and farmers across Canada would not be able to meet their usual levels of production, resulting in soaring food prices.
Without migrant workers, farmers across Canada would not be able to meet their usual levels of production, resulting in soaring food prices.
ML: How has this project proved a learning experience for you?
PB: I did not know much about farming before I met Brian and Jeanette, and I still don’t know much. What I do know is that food is crucial, and we don’t get food without farmers. Here in Canada we are disconnected from this truth because we go to a grocery store and buy our shiny vegetables and our pre-cut and pre-packaged meat and mostly don’t think about where it comes from. Who planted it, who harvested it, who slaughtered it, who packaged it?
The men who left their families in Trinidad and Tobago to work at Lennox Farm were inspiring: Leaving their homes for months at a time, they miss and are in daily contact with their homes and communities. Fearing COVID-19 restrictions would block their return to Canada for the 2021 season, several workers opted not to go home over the winter, delaying their return to their families by a full year.
ML: How did you find the farm as a shooting environment?
PB: At Lennox Farm I approached the photography as I do working overseas: I try to become invisible. I work to make the individual I am photographing so comfortable with my presence that I become a part of the scenery. This can only happen by spending time with the people I am photographing and not always pointing a camera in their face.
Each day I made sure to arrive in time for good light, early morning or late afternoon. On most days, I photographed in the morning just as Brian and Jeanette and their staff were getting the tractors ready or preparing to walk or ride to the fields. The camaraderie between Brian and the workers was clear, as they joked around with each other while they started their day. From there I would follow the action: If the workers were going to the fields, I would follow them; if Brian was taking a tractor to spray or fertilize the crops, I would follow him.
COVID-19 restrictions made some great would-be photo opportunities impossible, such as riding in the tractor with Brian as he fertilized or sprayed the fields or getting close to the workers for a portrait. But I worked around these challenges as needed.
The second day I went to the farm to take photos, which was the first day shooting with the migrant workers on-site, was a memorable one. For me there was excitement in the air—the story of COVID-19, migrant workers and Lennox Farm was coming together, and I was happy to see that we were all working together to document it. The sun was rising as I took my photos, it was quiet and the workers were picking rhubarb. What stands out to me as I think back to this moment are the sounds: the rustling of the leaves as the workers picked the rhubarb, the put-put of the tractor, the muffled voices laughing and talking with each other. It was a good moment.
Excerpted from the spring issue of ML Blue Mountains.