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Summer students prove a pleasant surprise

Back row, from left: Colton Fowlow, Jarod Martin, Alexander Sweetapple, Matthew MacArthur, Jared Smith, Cole Stevens. From row: Travis Cormier, Danny Cormier, Jennelle Vallis, Abby Ryan, Kylie Anderson, Nicholas Hynes, Devon Lomond, Gerard Cormier, Tracey Fowlow. (Absent: Melissa Cormier, Maureen Cormier). – courtesy of West Valley Farms

CODROY VALLEY – Tracey Fowlow admits she was ill prepared for 11 students walking through her door one mid-summer Monday morning.

“That first day they walked through the door it was ‘Oh my gosh!’. What are we going to do with them?” she laughs.

Fowlow is the administrator for West Valley Farms, a large scale dairy farm that has belonged to the Cormier family for decades. West Valley Farms applies to hire two students each summer and typically gets funded for one.

This year they were granted funding to hire 10 students, aged 16 to 21, as part of the federal student summer jobs program. That application is submitted in February, but once COVID-19 hit the government amended its programs and agreed to cover 100 percent of salaries for students instead of its standard 50 percent.

“Usually you can’t change the application, and we felt with everything going on, the uncertainty, we figured let’s change it. Let’s go for ten,” recounts Fowlow. “A lot of the summer jobs are tourism. We knew that everyone has been held up in their house. We didn’t think there was going to be any tourism in our area this summer, so hence nothing for the students, so it was a reach out to help the students in our community.”

The group grew to 11 once owner Gerard Cormier realized he had forgotten his promise to hire his granddaughter.

Fowlow credits MP Gudie Hutchings (Long Range Mountains) for her efforts in helping to get the application amended and pushed through. That process lasted through most of the summer and was finalized not long before the students showed up to work.

In turn, Cormier praises Fowlow for the months of paperwork, phone calls and e-mail follow ups.

“She put a lot of work in. It didn’t come easy,” says the veteran farmer.

Even though the dairy farm is considered an essential service, he still admits to being shocked at receiving funding for 10. The farm’s staff had predicted that only half of their applications would be successful and some would only be granted part-time hours. They guessed wrong.

“It was 10 full time, 35 hours a week, for eight weeks,” says Fowlow. “It was over $32,000 in funding.”

That funding was set at minimum wage, but like he always does, Cormier topped it up a bit so the students would get $12 per hour. Farms are, by their very design, labour intensive and the students no doubt earned every penny.

In an effort to continue to support Codroy Valley through the pandemic, West Valley sent their new young employees to help out seniors in the area. That sometimes meant days of hard labour chopping and hauling wood to stockpile for the winter.

“Out of the eight weeks, we probably donated close to three weeks of the kids, just out in the community. And what a response we got from the seniors. They were just so appreciative,” recalls Cormier. “Some of those seniors are in their eighties and still burning wood.”

Once word got around, it wasn’t long before Fowlow stopped calling seniors to ask if they needed help and started keeping a list, because the seniors had started calling in with requests. The students also worked at local churches, tending to graveyards, and cutting back overgrown hiking trails.

“It was also exciting for the kids because it gave them something different every day,” says Cormier. “Those kids, they were excited to come to work every day. They didn’t miss a day’s work.”

In helping the community, the students also helped themselves. Some of them had never before held a job, which meant no work experience to list on resumés and no job references. Now that they’ve earned both at West Valley Farms, Fowlow confirms that she’s already been contacted as a job reference, which she is more than happy to provide.

Once the community was taken care of, students went to work on the farm, painting, landscaping, bottle feeding calves or picking rocks out of freshly plowed fields in preparation for sowing. Travis Cormier says that as a result, the students themselves transformed.

“It’s a pretty hard job,” says Travis. “You’d see some of them lose weight and other ones gain strength. It was crazy.”

All three say they witnessed personal growth in the students as well. The quieter ones became more outgoing thanks to the teamwork, and as the weeks progressed and their confidence grew they began to display initiative.

“At the end of it they already knew. You didn’t have to tell them to go pick up the garbage or pick up a rake. It was more automatic,” says Travis.

Although the social distancing rules were adhered to as much as possible, in a work setting like a farm it doesn’t always prove practical. West Valley Farm was closed to the public and remains so, and that isolation helped the students build camaraderie simply because of the work bubble.

In fact, helping the valley students was the key reason the farm increased its request for their number of summer students in the first place.

“All education stopped mid-March and just the social and mental… what they had been through,” says Fowlow, who believes the sudden cut off from friends would prove jarring and stressful for the young adults. “You could hear them laughing and having fun.”

Having an influx of new employees also meant more work for the farm’s existing staff.

“If she (Fowlow) wasn’t here, somebody had to be here to direct them,” offers Cormier. “We kept them away from any hazard areas.”

Some days that was as simple as making sure there was enough gas in the tank or ordering supplies. Other days it meant health and occupational hazard training to ensure proper safety guidelines were being met. Some things the students simply weren’t allowed to do, like operating a power saw or driving heavy equipment.

Overall the experience was nothing but positive for the owners and employees of West Valley Farms. Cormier says that if he could do it all again next summer, he probably would.

“We got a lot of gratification from helping the seniors in the community,” says Cormier. Having the students allowed him to free up his employees to take on other work. “It was a benefit to us, so I wanted to share a benefit to the community.”

“We could probably plan it a bit better for next year,” grins Travis. “But we didn’t know we were going to get 10!”

“They accomplished a lot,” says Fowlow. “They did phenomenal.”

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