For us, 2020 was admittedly not the worst year. Though we experienced the challenges accompanied by any year in a livelihood vulnerable to weather conditions and based around a menagerie of various live animals, our privilege of already living a fairly isolated life buffered us from a lot of the more adverse effects of the year. The first part of the year started out quite normal, except for the pink-eye infection that got passed from our ram to much of our flock, only discovered after the sole sire was found marching off on his own into a blizzard. We had to replace our beloved Livestock Guardian Dog Bea due to newfound wandering inclinations, and gritted our teeth through some biting cold temperatures in anticipation of Spring. Nevertheless, we were excited about some new and improved plans for the farm for the coming year, including an increased focus on our Meat Share subscription program, our ‘Beef Box’ and ‘Lamb Box’ where we would supply about 15 families with a monthly/bimonthly package of meat throughout 6 or 12 months. These customers had the option to add-on eggs, honey and other extras, and were the first to hear about special promotions we were offering.
Of course, there were some curveballs thrown in there, due to a global pandemic. We stressed about leaving our safe cozy nest to deliver food in Winnipeg, but suddenly had people calling and emailing left and right, alarmed by the cleared-out meat freezers in grocery stores, and wanting to buy a deep freeze and fill it. We got used to saying no, or explaining that customers could make a smaller order and be placed on our pre-order list to receive bulk beef or lamb later on. We felt a newfound sense of responsibility for feeding our local customers in a way we never had, before – one based more on food security. Our Meat Share members were lucky in that they had a guarantee of receiving their package of grassfed meats every month, and by the end of Spring we had our wait list for our 2021 Meat Share program almost sold out. We were happy to see our other direct marketing friends enjoy the same kind of increased interest, and that some farming neighbours decided to pivot more towards a direct marketing model, for the first time.
We worried about the need for labour during the summer but how vulnerable it could make us to bring people from the outside into our little family’s ‘bubble’. That, and discovering that we were expecting our second child, had us thinking of things in a whole new light. We realized that these things were all fairly trivial compared with the daily struggles of BIPOC and that being anti-racist is an intentional and continuous act, a practice at which we had a lot of work to do. The world seemed to be falling apart and things felt heavy, despite our privileged isolation and not being very directly affected, relative to others.
We separated from family members that we were used to seeing regularly, our main supports, including for child care. We slowed down and, despite the constant needs of the farm, enjoyed some quieter days as a family. We tried to educate ourselves on the science (relatively little that was then known) of the novel coronavirus, and spoke with peer farmers about how to tweak our existing direct marketing model to be as safe as possible. We soon realized that our model of meeting people outdoors in parking lots and fulfilling items ore-ordered online was one that required relatively little adaptation, and that it would be a model that many other farmers would emulate. It’s a good thing we didn’t have to resort to hurling our meat at our customers…haha.
Spring took its sweet time in coming, but we were in much better shape this Spring than the past year, due to a high-moisture Fall preceding. We needed what was left of those Fall rains – as we didn’t get our first significant rain until May 24th. Still, it was not quite enough to help some of our annual forage crops germinate, and we had to re-seed some of them twice.
Calving season went well, although there were a few complications – one of them occurring on the very day that we had the Pembina Valley Watershed District team out to help plant thousands of trees as part of a funding-approved shelter belt program. The calf’s two front legs had been very bent up and unlike most hours-old bovine babes, he was unable to stand properly, and therefore needed assistance drinking milk from his mother. Dubbed ‘Tiny Dancer’ for his wobbly appendages, he was a project of Troy’s for a number of weeks until he was eventually rehabilitated, able to walk, and released into the pasture with the rest of the herd. These types of situations do not always end as success stories, but it sure feels good when they do. After calving on some of our pasture closer to the home yard, and where we could monitor and feed them easily, the herd moved out to grazing pastures on May 15.
Troy had various Spring ‘projects’, one large one being the aforementioned tree planting initiative, and he dug deep into his history of being a professional treeplanter for 7 seasons to plug a variety of species into the ground on various parts of our land. With a relatively dry Spring, we needed to go and water the kilometres of tree rows numerous times, which was a big job in itself. We were fairly happy with the success rate of the saplings, and plan to replace any gaps next Spring. We hope that these trees will provide not only wind and sun shelter for the livestock, but aid in water absorption, and encouragement of a diversity of biology both below and above the soil surface. Troy did a great job in choosing species that fit with the soil type, many that would grow naturally on our (sandy loam) land. Troy also took some time to build a number of bird houses for welcoming prairie bird species in making a home on our land; as well as some ‘raptor perches’ to aid birds like hawks and eagles in safely roosting and eyeing up pesky prey like pocket gophers.
Lambing began right on schedule on June 1st, despite our fears that our blind ram had not possibly ‘done his job’ back in January. We lamb out on pasture, partly because it is more natural for the species and partly due to our lack of infrastructure (read: we have no barn). I personally love lambing, and it’s largely my bag – as Troy manages the cattle herd, the sheep flock management is mostly bestowed to me. Although we only had about 40 ewes due to lamb, each one can have between 1-3 lambs, and their early disposition is a lot more delicate than calves’. Our young LGD Aggie reminded us that she is still just a pup, and we had to watch her carefully as she was inclined to ‘roughhouse’ with the new little lambs. Lambing started out much better than it ended.
June also brought us our new farmhand, Marc, a university student from Winnipeg looking for a new experience working on a farm. He jumped in and learned quickly, and we were grateful to have his help in what would be a very busy season.
We somehow got away for one night of camping in June, which would be the only real night camping as a family that season, and Syd loved exploring the trails of Spruce Woods on his little balance bike. We were reminded that a ‘getaway’ is not always a restful-type of holiday when you don’t end up getting much sleep and need to do more work to pack and ready the farm to be away than the equivalent received in rest; but all the same, our souls appreciated the safe interactions with friends who we had not seen in some time.
The bees were eventually brought out to the 4 pasture or hayland-based yards by late June, and they seemed quite strong coming out of Winter. We had not sold nearly the number of hives we had hoped to in Spring, so were left with some higher numbers of colonies (which ended up to be a blessing, more on that later).
One of my personal highlights of the season was that I finally got my ‘egg mobile’, a mobile laying hen coop that allowed us to bring the hens onto pasture and move them around in a way we couldn’t previously. Troy had spent most of the Spring building the structure, based onto the skeleton of an old hay rack in a lean-to design, and we discovered that it was light enough to move around with our ATV, which meant that thankfully myself or our farmhands could do this job without the use of a tractor. We figured out a system where we placed the coop on some of our barest, most fertility-deprived land, and so the fertilization could be improved there by the hens (the building has a slatted floor, so manure falls through to the ground below) both roosting in the evenings and walking around on the pasture during the day. We moved the eggmobile every 2-3 days, thus spreading out the concentration of manure and letting the hens scratch around in the grasses, doing their chicken thing. They were laying quite well as they got used to the new program, and we supplied both our regular Egg Share subscribers and our Meat Share subscribers who wished to add eggs. Feeding and watering, and collecting eggs was a task that Sydney could help with as well, and he enjoyed going out an observing those tiny ‘dinosaurs’.
July brought us away from the farm for a whole 3-day holiday at a friend’s cabin in Lake of the Woods – a real treat for us as a family that Syd would refer to many times in the months to come. Some great memories made there with old friends and some newfound ones, as well. We were grateful for the opportunity and came back to the farm refreshed.
Unfortunately, we also experienced some great losses in our lambing during July, when we realized that our lambs were going missing…particularly after moving them further away from the home farmyard onto broader pastures. We suspect that predators (most likely coyotes) were picking off our smallest, weakest animals, and were reminded that a young new LGD and a larger area of pasture for her to guardian were not a great combination for protection. Our lamb losses ended up being much higher than I would ever want to see in any normal given year. It was frustrating as a shepherd/steward, and I took the main responsibility for not managing my flock better. Being pregnant and not as able to be as hands-on as I normally would also likely played a factor. But sometimes, Nature has her way and we need to do our best to learn lessons and inform ourselves to try and prevent it in the future.
Troy had a variety of annual ‘cover crop’ type experiments on the go this year, as we saw the value of having high-quality feeds for our livestock (either via grazing directly or by making into Winter hay or silage), but also the improvement to our soil by diversifying the species. He did a great job of managing these crops, and made decisions based on an ‘adaptive’ method where observation was his biggest asset (along with the timing of a few crucial rains). We took a day to go to a grazing tour at our friends at South Glanton Farms in July, where we were inspired by the various actions they were taking to truly be regenerative – the results were there in front of our eyes.
We continued to tweak our deliveries to Winnipeg, and with the high demand were able to start offering grass-finished ground beef from my brother and neighbour Mark (Schram Cattle Co) for the latter part of the year. We also partnered up with Jonathon from John Ambrose Farms once more, in offering his pasture-raised chickens.
This was one of our best grazing years for the cattle, probably partly due to Troy’s management of the land for the past few years prior. We started to finally really see some potential in our very limited land base, to increase our cattle herd slightly as production of grasses and legumes also increased. The cattle herd was overall quite healthy, with calves growing well and cows keeping good condition while nursing those growing calves. (I have a whole new appreciation for these requirements after having gone through nursing a growing baby, myself!) If you would like to learn more about the intensive and adaptive management practices we use in managing our cattle herd, please read more about it here.
The beekeeping season was not as fruitful, however. It started out looking fantastic, with strong colonies and lots of great flowers for the bees to find nectar in. However, as we have seen the past couple of years, if we don’t receive some crucial precipitation in the late Summer, that nectar will dry up and honey production can take a major dive. This is particularly true when we rely on more of the perennial species like alfalfa, and seek to harvest more of our crop following the time when canola blooms, thus focusing in on the more diverse and perennial species, that generally lack in production but give us a higher quality product. We also chose not to extend our honey harvest as late as we might have to gain the benefits of these flowers; as our main 2 staff in late Summer were local high school students Kevin and Wyatt, who had to return to school the first week of September. With my pregnant energy waning, and the rest of the farm in fairly full swing, Troy felt he needed to cease the heavy duty work that is involved in honey harvest, at that time, for the best interest of his own health and our family’s sanity.
Of course, we always anticipate that things are going to slow down much more than they do in Fall time, and we pushed through the end of the growing season, with a short but welcome break of a retreat to Room to Grow Guesthouse in nearby Turtle Mountains, owned by our friends David and Maggie. These well-timed ‘holidays’ from the farm were pretty crucial in maintaining our mental health, as well as likely our physical health – we had somehow avoided sickness all year. Although we had a somewhat early frost at the end of August, we had a long, drawn-out mild Autumn that allowed us to work away at many of the things needed to be done before Winter really set in. Troy’s dream of building a sauna in our backyard came to fruition this year, as he began the project (still ongoing at this time). He lives with severe psoriasis, ankylosing spondylitis and related auto-immune-compromising effects on his body, and the sauna is viewed as a great way to counter these physical health issues, in addition to the therapeutic effects psychologically. He has put a great deal of work into the design and construction of this building, and I am looking forward to when he can finally finish it and enjoy it. Turns out that sauna-building was on the agenda for a lot of people, this Fall and he’s found some great community in researching it all!
Meanwhile, the due date for our baby #2 to arrive was bumped from December 20 back to a scheduled c-section on November 27, due to some complications known from my previous birth (namely, I have a uterine septum that increases my chances for pre-term labour). We were dealing with Brandon, which is still 1.5 hours away from our home, but went into the experience knowing that having our baby at 36.5 weeks would likely result in some premature-related complications. Our baby boy, Sasha Taras Stozek, was born on November 27 at 6 lbs 5 oz and did end up being sent to the NICU in Brandon, where he spent the next 10 days. I stayed in Brandon with him, working to feed him as soon as he was able, and being with our baby while Troy had to return to care for our toddler Syd and the farm. With COVID restrictions, only one of us was able to be in the NICU at one time, and once I was discharged, only one of us could be in the whole maternity ward at the same time. We felt fortunate that both Troy and I were even able to visit, and also that I was able to live at the nearby nurses residence, to avoid costly hotel fees while I lived in Brandon. Still, it was a hard time, both physically and emotionally, but we had the perspective of having gone through a very similar experience with our first son Sydney 3 years ago…so we found ways to navigate it a lot better. If there is anyone out there reading this who wants to discuss or process their own experience with a baby in the NICU or even just going through the birth process during COVID-19, I’m happy to chat with you about it. We are so grateful that Sasha is home with us now, healthy and growing strong, but we are sorry that he has not been able to meet some of his family members yet, due to COVID-19 and all of the risks associated with this time in addition to the vulnerabilities of a baby born prematurely.
Thankfully, the mild weather helped us through this time, and our cattle are still grazing on land that was only grazed once early on in the season, so had adequate growth stockpiled for this time of year. Our lambs and calves are weaned, and now in their finishing pens over at my father’s ranch, where they will be given higher-quality feed and provided more shelter than being in the open pasture. We put more of a proportion of our total honey crop in jars and pails than ever this year, with pails being increasingly popular with our direct customers. We shipped honey all over – to customers in Vancouver, NWT, and New Brunswick. We are trying to support the small business owners that retail our honey jars in Winnipeg, Brandon and rurally – many of which are struggling to make ends meet during a time of increased restrictions. Please view the full list of these retailers here, and see which ones you can support when possible.
We feel incredibly fortunate to have had the kind of year that we have had, especially when we see what others have had to go through. We were still able to run our business, and saw demand blossom, with a new and growing interest from Manitobans in where they are sourcing their food, particularly their meat, from. It was incredibly discouraging to see the effects of COVID-19 on meat packing plant employees, and the way that many of these companies dealt (or didn’t deal) with it. We saw similar treatment in the migrant worker labour force, who do the work of producing a huge amount of the food and agricultural products in Canada. We are thankful for our existing customers, who trusted us to bring them food in a safe and responsible way. We are thankful for our small, independently-owned local abattoir and butcher (Killarney Meats) who managed to maintain their health and that of their staff while dealing with a record-breaking demand of meat processing, including ours. We are so indebted to my mother, who has been our sole child care provider since COVID began, and the support we got from her enabled us to keep the wheels on our crazy Fresh Roots Farm bus (most of the time, anyways). We have had other family support from within our bubble, as well.
Hopefully like many of you, we are looking forward to 2021 with optimism and hope, but also realism. We are not going to see all of our problems disappear with the turning of the calendar, and we fear that the underlying threat of climate change and all of its effects will turn out to be far more destructive than what we are experiencing with the outbreak of a virus. There’s no doubt in our minds that what is needed at this juncture is a change, and probably a major one, in societal and lifestyle habits, practices and values. It appears that we might have been more ready for this than thought, but as much as many might crave a return to ‘normalcy’, our so-called ‘normal’ pre-pandemic life was not sustainable, in so many ways. We are encouraged that many people are willing to prioritize local, small businesses, including those of you who wish to support a local food economy by developing a direct relationship with the farmers and ranchers that produce your food. Many of us might also might have to re-examine our privilege and how our participation (even unknowingly) in a system that is inherently discriminatory towards certain segments of our population is hurting those people. And how can we identify the ways in which we can make changes (including what we might need to give up/sacrifice) to work towards reconciliation and reparation. There is so much work to do here, including by ourselves, but we are encouraged that at least these conversations are meeting the fore, and that we have more resources at our disposal to educate ourselves on how we can change for the better.
One thing we are very proud of this year is our Food Accessibility Project, and how our customers continued to make donations towards this fund, despite many of you facing hardships of your own. You donated over $600 towards this fund this year, much of it just $10 at a time (tacked on to your order, for example) and that being added to our existing funds has meant that we can provide one year’s worth of a Beef Box to FIVE low-income households in 2021, at 50% of the regular cost. That means each of those families will receive a Quarter of a Grassfed Beef (about 100 lbs of meat), spread out over 12 months. This does not jeopardize our own income, as these funds help to compensate us for the 50% not being paid by the recipient. In addition to this, we are excited to announce that with the assistance of these funds, we will be making a donation of grassfed ground beef to the West Central Women’s Resource Centre in January 2021, that will go into about 150 food hampers for families that need it. We are so proud of our customers in continuing to help us make these initiatives a reality, and look forward to the ways we can help make our food more accessible to more people in 2021. If you have suggestions for us, please send them our way. If you wish to learn more about the origins of this project, developed in memory of Ian Berith Scott, please see our link here.
Instead of dwelling on all of the bad that was 2020, I hope that you can join us in trying to visualize (and bring to life) that which you wish to be and achieve in the coming year, and how we can build on the successes in our lives to be better people, for ourselves and others. In a world more sharply divided than ever, we have to believe in community, kindness, and love. And of course, the power of good food. We strongly believe that the latter is crucial in maintaining health and immunity, which I think is something we all want to prioritize right now.
Thanks to all of you, whether you have supported us by buying our food, or simply just by following along our journey here at Fresh Roots Farm. We appreciate you very much.
I’ll leave you with a quote recently shared by my friend Dana, one that is from years ago but resonates clearly now:
“We are living through the closing chapters of the established and traditional way of life. We are in the early beginnings of a struggle to remake our civilization. It is not a good time for politicians. It is a time for prophets and leaders and explorers and inventors and pioneers; and for those who are willing to plant trees for their children to live under.”
– Walter Lippmann (1889-1947). “The American Promise”, Newsweek, 9 Oct. 1967