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The new face of beef farming

They’re young, they’re women, and they’re focused on sustainability on the farm

What’s it like to be young or female in an industry synonymous with the image of the iconic grizzled cowboy? These days, millennials—and increasingly, women—are changing the face of the beef industry in Ontario.

In addition to this, growing environmental concerns mean that many have shifted their practices on the farm to be more sustainable. For some, this looks like protecting the soil or creating eco-friendly barns, whereas others may utilize leftover material to create entirely new, no-waste products. What they have in common is that all are done in the name of ensuring industry innovation.

We spoke with four Ontario farmers to learn more. Here are their stories of life on a beef farm.

Emma Butler, J&E Meats

Croton, Ontario  

Photo: Barnbird Photography c/o Laurel Ysebaert

I’m a fourth-generation beef farmer, and my husband Josh is the third generation on his family farm since 1939. We grew up 20 minutes down the road from one another, but we met at the local John Deere dealership, and it was in a way, love at first sight. We got together and then engaged, married on the farm, and were nine months pregnant by our first anniversary. We quickly followed up having two more.

I had always dreamt of entrepreneurship. I quickly realized that my place was home on the farm. Together, we raise beef, lamb, chicken, and crops on over 1000 acres. J&E Meats started as a little brick-and- mortar store in 2018. We wanted people to come here, meet us, their farmers, and see where their food comes from. We wanted our customers to be a part of their food story, and the farm-to-table journey.

To advertise our business, we turned to Facebook and Instagram. Too often the image of the farmer is that American Gothic painting with the older gentleman and the pitchfork. That’s what people often imagine! They don’t think of a farmer as a woman driving a tractor or feeding cattle, wearing red lipstick. Customers today are smart and savvy, and they’ve done their research before they show up. We want to empower our customers with knowledge and transparency of what we do, and how we do it; that’s what makes us different. We diversify our operation in many ways, one of which is using leftover beef fat to make Camden Tallow, J&E’s organic skincare line.

There’s no one way to be sustainable, and sustainability looks different on every farm, but here it looks like constant striving towards improvement and efficiency. Our farm uses modern practices and integrated technologies into our production. We have GPS in our tractors and radio frequency ID tags in the animals. We work hard to reduce our environmental impact, using cover crops and no-till practices to improve soil health. We recycle egg cartons, use reusable bags, and offer digital receipts. All of these things add up, little by little. We are proud advocates of sustainability and proud to be modern day farmers.

Robert McKinlay, Silver Springs Farms

Ravenna, Ontario

I just graduated from the University of Guelph with a Bachelor of Agriculture and moved home this spring. I’m the fifth generation on Silver Springs Farms, where we moved in 1888 from Scotland. We went from a cabin on 100 acres to about 2500 acres now, where we grow field crops and cattle.

The farm is situated on pretty diverse land, so it’s almost like we’re managing a few different farms. Some don’t even have electricity or wells; we use water from the rivers and we’ve installed low-water crossings and fencing to minimize the impact of the cattle on sensitive zones like wetlands or forests. We’re able to use land that’s difficult to access and soil that’s not rich enough to grow crops for our 400 cows and 30 bulls to graze. Silver Springs might look old-fashioned in places, but in other ways we’re quite advanced. Through genomics and other research at various universities, we’ve identified which animals are most efficient at converting forages and grains to animal protein for human consumption.

We even have land that we’ve set aside specifically for bird nesting. We are careful to delay the cutting of hay until mid-July to allow local birds to nest and lay their eggs. We work around their breeding cycles—not the other way around. Sustainability and efficiency are so important at Silver Springs; we’re all about using less to produce the same high-quality product for consumers.

Gordon Dibble, Dibbhurst Farms

Ingersoll, Ontario

Photo: This Kinda Life

Dibbhurst Farms is just east of London, Ontario, where my family’s been since the 401 highway went in. I’m the fourth generation here—I farm with my mom and dad, wife, and two boys—though I’m a certified welder, too. Dad wanted me to have another boss besides him.

Four years ago, to keep about 900 cattle, we built a new barn that was as energy-efficient as possible. We worked with engineers and designed it ourselves: it’s 120 by 350 feet long with a fabric overshot roof that acts like a chimney, drawing heat out in the summer. The wind goes by outside and sucks old and damp air out, so there’s always a nice breeze going through and it doesn’t stink in there. The sun comes right through the skylight so we don’t need added lighting. We use geothermal heat for the water bowls, and the floors are slightly sloped, so the cattle actually push their own manure away and we just sweep the outside once a week. This saves a lot of time and energy. Because I was a welder before, I did all the steelwork and gates myself. Even better, the whole barn uses about a quarter of the hydro than that of a regular household. If you cooked breakfast at home this morning, then you used more hydro than we will all day.

The maintenance of healthy soil is also hugely important to us. Healthy soil feeds healthy crops, which feed healthy cattle and then creates healthy food. We keep the soil healthy by trying our best to get our manure spread back and mixed in with the soil in a responsible way, to not only boost soil health but also to protect groundwater. We plant cover crops when we can to help make the nutrients from the manure more available in the soil for next year’s crop and to help build organic matter in the dirt. All of these tactics play a role in our sustainability efforts.

Sustainability has been important to us for generations and we will continue to do the best job possible. My personal ‘why’ is so that my boys will be able to farm healthy soil and feed healthy cattle for years to come.

Sandra Vos

Brantford, Ontario

Twenty years ago, when I was a public health nurse, a cousin came to me and offered me the opportunity to buy their farm. Though I’d helped out on the farm a bit as a kid, I had no desire to be a farmer. But I did like gardening, and before I knew it, I had bought 80 acres. I started from scratch, which in some ways is very freeing because you can make your own mistakes and think outside of the box. I’m sure the neighbours had a lot of fun watching the process.

Maybe it was all the years of nursing, but I believe good health comes from good food, which comes from good soil. I decided the land was a gift, and I’d work with the land and in conjunction with everything else on it. I got cattle mostly because they’re the best way to repair and improve the soil. I didn’t rip anything up, I hardly planted anything, and I left the soil undisturbed. Then it became something of an adventure to see what I could do for the cattle so that they’d, in turn, do good things for the grass.

People say to me, “You farm, right? What do you have?” The obvious answer is cattle, and I do have about 30 right now, but the real answer is the land. I  don’t start with yields and bushels, I  work the other way by asking: What can the land handle and what can I do to make it even better? Everything here has a place, me and 11 barn cats included, and even the damn skunk that moved in the other day.

To learn more about Ontario’s provincial beef industry and its local farmers, visit ontbeef.ca.