Saturday, January 29, 2011

My January Column in the Friday AM.

Endings and Beginnings.

Writing this so close to the calendar year change I will do my best to avoid boring recaps of the past year and offering my predictions for 2011 as seems so common among many writers in both print and electronic media. Here on the farm things not only change with the seasons but also with the economy. Every one has to eat, so every one is a potential customer for a farmer selling to a consumer. This is a new concept for me and constitutes one of the biggest changes I have encountered since coming to the metropolis of Salmon Arm.
“Salmon Arm, a metropolis” you say. Well, to a rancher from the Manitoba Prairie who drove 30 miles to pick up the mail this area sure has a lot of people, and the mailbox is right by my pasture just a short walk from the barn. The down side is I can’t go to the coffee shop to catch up on gossip and cattle prices while picking up the latest issue of the “Western Producer” and the inevitable bills. Every one there and in most of the Canadian Prairies were commodity farmers and ranchers. We had one pay cheque a year when we shipped a couple of semi loads of calves and never met or spoke to the folks who ate our product. Life was simple, but with out the feedback or interaction with our customers, I now realize it was dull and somewhat boring; with out knowing it, I needed a challenge.
We arrived here nearly six years ago and change it seems was the name of the game. We started out commodity farming, cow/calf, grazing stockers (yearlings) and lately sheep. With our fertile irrigated valley bottomland producing 4 times per acre more than our land on the old ranch I felt the smaller land base would work. Then economics reared its ugly head in the form of higher costs and lower livestock prices. It was time to jump into the “white water” of value added and farm diversification, get wet, cold and scared. A 180 degree turn from grass chewing rancher to rural businessman, who says you can’t teach old dogs new tricks.
Learning curves are always tough, sometimes brutal and always full of surprises, some good, some not so. Rather than jump in head first, we stepped into the water gently just up to our knees to check it out. Last year saw us grow a small market garden of mixed vegetables to sell at the farm gate and in the Farmers Market. We produced and sold pasture-raised meats, chicken, pork, lamb and rabbit. Well boy oh boy, did we have fun, sure it was hard work and long hours, with its share of problems, but the interaction with our customers was worth it. I am not sure who learnt more, them or us. I could have ended up one of those crusty old ranchers who preferred cattle to people, and sits in the coffee shop complaining about the weather, the government and cattle prices. Instead I now get to sell my produce to local consumers and share and talk with them and their children about how the food is grown, why its good for them and answer there varied questions about our operation. Farming and ranching is fun again, and now I can share my passion not only with my critters but also my customers.
Here at the threshold of 2011 I will make no predictions for me, or you, but I can safely say our farming operation will grow, as local raised and grown food seems very much on the minds of folks in the Shuswap. We will have a new outlet on our farm with the moving of Mount Ida hall to our farmyard. This will give us a farm store and meeting place, (maybe I can sit in the corner drink coffee and complain about the government and cattle prices as a tourist attraction, or may be not says the wife!) We will also start several new product lines, pasture raised beef and eggs and also grow more early sweet corn and potatoes. I sold so many potatoes we have none for our selves and are reduced to buying them in the store, I have been given strict instructions not to let this happen again by you know who!
The weather has been kind so far and the wood pile is not going down very fast which is a treat as I don’t spend as long being shaken to pieces by my trusty husky chain saw. On the farm it also means with the warmer weather less hay is consumed which is always a bonus. Things have calmed down and we can now plan for next year. My wife, the organizer of our team has had me install two large planning calendars, one for the year and one for the month on our office wall. All notations are colour coded for ease of recognition along with appointment times and destinations. All I have to do is decipher it and be at the right place at the right time, and I thought last years learning curve was tough!

No comments: