After a bit of a hiatus (the last actual blog post was July 2018), I’m returning with a Spring 2019 edition of ‘What’s New?’. ‘Spring’ is something we have been anticipating for what seems like a long time – after a Winter here in southwestern Manitoba that was long and quite cold, any temperature above zero now seems like a respite. Today, the temperatures are in the single digits and the wind is blowing strongly. It feels like a good day to finally release this blog post and accompanying newsletter, and say a few of the things that we don’t get the opportunity to say via social media.
Spring always feels a bit like it brings new beginnings, new opportunities, and of course new challenges for the season ahead. This Spring, Troy and I feel a bit differently – although we know there will be lots of work ahead of us, we feel much less anxious about this than we have in past years. Last Spring, we experienced a pretty big life event with Troy requiring emergency surgery and needing to facilitate recovery by not pushing his body the way he normally does in the busy season. Truthfully, he wasn’t able to fully recover and heal until the early Winter, when the opportunity to physically rest presented itself.
Lately, we have realized that, in order to mitigate future health problems, be it physically but also mentally, we need to take some extra initiative to do some work on ourselves. For us, this has meant exploring strategies for mitigating stress (which we know by now will always be a given in our lives) and for self-improvement, so that hopefully we can approach our life – farm, parenting, personal relationships – in a more productive way. One of these strategies is daily (or twice daily) meditation, which was initiated by Troy, and I am trying it out as well. It’s pretty amazing how much even 15 minutes of resting your brain can do for helping to calm the hundreds of thoughts running through your head and help you focus and actually become more productive during the remainder of your day. We are also really thankful to have other farming friends that are trying similar practices; we can hopefully encourage each other to continue on when it feels like there is ‘no time’ to devote to these things. But we can already see the value of taking the time to do these things – it is the basis of everything, including making sure we can properly and effectively run a farm business together. We also took the time in March to have a little family holiday to the Whiteshell, which was good for the soul. We enjoyed hosting a series of house concerts with Canadian musicians via the “Home Routes” Project as well, which was super fun.
But anyways, we are feeling good, strong and excited to take on the coming season. Troy spent the Winter months making sure the cattle and sheep were well-fed and comfortable, which mostly involved rolling out bales of hay and distributing silage forage, which the animals could eat in a long, buffet-style presentation. While ensuring that all animals can get adequate feed intake during cold winter days, rolling the bales out also serves as a way to help build soil organic matter; any feed that is left behind will remain on the soil surface and act as a barrier against moisture loss, and also will encourage microbiology to decompose the litter and build the soil through this process. This is primarily done on hayland, which we depend on during the growing season to provide us with the Winter feed we will need to feed to them then, so instead of ‘mining’ all of the nutrients from this land we attempt to return some of them, as well. The cattle have a nice bluff of trees as well as moveable windbreak shelters, and their thick hides serve them well throughout Winter days. I can’t say the same about my own skin, which more than a few days this Winter I had wished was much thicker (and furrier, ha).
The one and two-year-old calves (we call them calves, but they are at a point of maturity, so technically steers and heifers) lived at another farm site at my Dad’s, where they are pampered a bit more leading up to their time of being finished, killed and butchered. We give them some extra non-grain supplements to keep them growing well throughout the colder Winter days, and began bringing in some of the first finished animals for butcher in January 2019. At this point, we will consistently butcher a couple of beef and a handful of lambs every month…and in the meantime try to empty our freezers through our direct sales to make room for the next ones.
Meanwhile, I started back at my off-farm job in the Fall, with my family’s ranch supply business. I have since been working 2 days a week there, helping ranchers source feed, fencing and equipment, as well as serving as a fashion consultant for their clothing needs (ha). I enjoy the change of focus on my off-farm work days, and it helps bring us some household income, as everything we bring in from the farm business side of things is invested back into the farm. Likewise, we aim to not have to subsidize our farm business with off-farm income, and have been achieving that goal, thanks to steady sales throughout the year. Troy is full-time on the farm, and over the Winter helped me more with the onerous administrative, marketing and financial side of managing Fresh Roots Farm.
Speaking of, we used the Winter to re-assess our farm business and employed the help of a business consultant to try and figure out some new strategies to grow Fresh Roots even further. We feel like we are in a place of needing to grow our sales as we in turn grow the number of animals we will finish in a season. This number used to be lower as we carefully worked our way into the grassfed beef business, but selling the remainder of our calves at the auction mart was not our chosen path. We feel confident in the grassfed beef and lamb products we’re producing, and have quite a consistent supply throughout the year. We are relying on our direct meat sales, and some sales from breeding stock (ie selling heifers to other producers for their herd) to help us achieve much of this growth.
Last season was a really tough one, for the honey. The dry conditions meant less nectar production in the pasture plants we rely on for the bees to collect for their honey production, and this resulted in a low production honey year. This stung (no pun intended) after a harsh Winter of losing the majority of our bees, so we definitely took a financial hit in the honey enterprise. This year looks far more promising, with a strong overwintering. The bees have been flying all around – check out Troy’s video below showing how active they were just one week ago. The bees will be anxiously awaiting the first pollen, but Troy will need to feed some to them in the meantime.
Aside from taking a deeper look at our business, we also attended a number of workshops and conferences over the Winter months to continue our process of learning: about topics like soil health, livestock management, and cover cropping. Cover crops, which is generally an annual crop planted for the purpose of improving the soil health, is something that Troy is really interested in. One of the projects is planting a diverse mix of fourteen different plants (mostly annual, but some perennial seed) into some of our hayland that is poorest, with the intention that the diversity of roots will bring up different nutrients and minerals from different levels in the soil, and feed a diverse mix of microbiology, which we are seeing is a key part of this equation. We will try and do this process with minimal disturbance, and after trying some other annual feed mixes in previous years, this portion will be eventually sown back to perennial hay land, hopefully with increased soil health. He’s also talking about continuing to add to our perennial pasture seed bank, adding legumes that will help improve the soil, and feed our livestock as they graze there. The cattle and sheep in turn can nurture the soil health, as long as they are managed in such a way that the areas that they graze are rotated frequently and that those areas are provided adequate rest/recovery before returning for another graze. We’re looking forward to graze even more intensively this year, which becomes easier every year as we become more efficient at building and moving cross-fences.
We also helped form a peer group of other farmers and ranchers who are interested in regenerative agriculture practices, and met regularly once a month. This is a great community who are invaluable people in terms of the skills and knowledge they have to share, as well as support for each other’s efforts to do things ‘differently’.
We finally got our solar panels hooked up at the beginning of the New Year, a 30 kWh system that takes up a large portion of our farmyard, but should be helpful to us over the long term! After almost 3 months, we are at a point where we are producing about 71% of what we are taking from the grid – as this is part of the MB Hydro incentive program, and we don’t yet have our own batteries to store this energy, whatever our panels produce is delivered back into the grid and we can therefore enjoy the savings by having Hydro purchase this back from us. It’s pretty cool to see the meter going on a nice, sunny day!
I can’t believe I’ve written this much and not really talked about Syd the Kid! Sydney is now about 14 months old, and he’s really a lot of fun. He now toddles around on his own two feet, exploring and chattering about this and that, usually saying ‘buh’ or ‘bah’ (this represents cows and sheep, respectively), ‘duck’, ‘bye’, ‘bottle’ and more recently, ‘no’. He really likes to play the piano, read books, and loves playing outside! I can see that this year will be fun (yet challenging), having him tag along with [some] chores, exploring, getting dirty and seeing all of the interesting things that a farm, and nature in general, has to offer. Here are some photos of Syd: (and yes, he’s still bald!)
Overall, life is really good and we’re feeling really grateful, these days. There’s a lot of exciting things on the horizon, and for now, we’re enjoying a more reasonable pace. One thing we are looking forward to this Spring is to meet up with some Newcomer families in Brandon, who will be ordering some beef and lamb packages at a subsidized rate through the new ‘Food Accessibility Project’, in Memory of Ian Scott. If you haven’t heard about this yet, please take a moment and read more about it, here. If you’re in a position to add an extra $10 or more to an order with us, or you want to make a donation to this project on its own, please consider doing so by selecting it in our online farm store, under “Donation…”. We are thankful to the Westman Immigrant Services for their assistance in connecting us with some of the families they work with, to roll out this project.
The next couple of weeks will see calving begin. Troy will also have to pick up our new Speckle Park bull from Saskatchewan, we are in the process of a logo re-design (and honey label re-design), and getting ready for our Winnipeg Farm-to-Eater Delivery at the end of this week. Troy will be selling some of his bees, please get ahold of us if you are a registered beekeeper looking to purchase some. Wishing you all a happy and hopeful Spring. Thanks for following along.
I’ll leave you with a sweet video of Syd walking out with me to visit the sheep flock, being greeted by our friendly livestock guard dog, Bea.