Days off work are rare for Quebec dairy farmers, and that’s why a group of farmers is working to create a substitute program.

“On smaller farm where you have one person who’s the everything - the maintenance man, the cow man, the field man — it’s very hard to find somebody to replace that,” said Mike MacDonald, the owner of a dairy farm in Hatley, near Lennoxville in the Eastern Townships.

He has between 70 and 75 cows, 36 of which are dairy cows.

He said it’s as difficult to find qualified help as it is to fix a date when a farmer can actually leave on vacation, because it depends on various conditions on the farm.

And when farmers are sick, MacDonald said, they usually just suffer through it.

“You kind of just work through it. Maybe you have some pretty bad days but you work through it,” he said.

That’s why the Victoriaville-based Centre for Social Innovation in Agriculture has put together a farmer-replacement program.

Farmers need a break

About 30 farmers are participating in the pilot project, which is run by Michel Gendreau.

Gendreau said agricultural workers are twice as likely to suffer psychological distress than the average Canadian.

“The owner needs to take a break sometimes,” Gendreau said.

It’s hard for farmers to trust their livelihoods in other people’s hands. MacDonald said it would be worrisome to have someone unfamiliar with his farming methods and schedule taking care of his animals, and said it would require quite a bit of training.

That’s where people like Guillaume Spénard come in. The son of a farmer, he has been working in the sector since he was 10 years old but does not have his own farm.

“So far I’ve done 24 farms with 24 different methods. You have to adapt,” Spénard said.

Gendreau hopes to expand the program, based out of the Victoriaville CEGEP, to cover the entire agriculture-focused Centre-du-Québec region.