Howard and the bean

Stanstead QC–I wonder if there might be a link between the relative anonymity of the producers of beef and the impending demise of the family beef cattle farm in Canada?

It’s not like anyone who consumes beef knows where the meat comes from, what the conditions are on the farm, whether or not the cattle are well taken care of, whether or not the barns and facilities are clean, who the neighbours are, what the land itself looks like, or what the values are of the individual farmer. It’s just not part of the current beef production equation.

According to a recent Stats Canada report, “Farms raising predominantly beef and “all other animals” had the lowest proportions of farms covering their expenses and also had relatively large numbers of farms in the lowest receipts class.”

Which brings me to Howard’s farm in nearby Hatley.

Hatley isn’t a village so much as it is an intersection of two roads and a collection of homes and farms. There is a fabulous Canada Day gathering here every 1st of July with thousands of visitors turning up from all over the Eastern Townships. Sophie and I watched the fireworks in Hatley this year in someone’s cornfield in a surreal drive-in-without-a-screen.

We met Howard’s daughter, Lindsey at the fireworks. She offered us a ride in her pickup back down to her folks’ farm – where we had parked the car. We walked and then Sophie and Lindsey got to talking about horses and we were invited back to visit with Lindsey and her horses and that’s how I got to talking with Howard.

Howard used to raise only beef cattle on his farm. There are still a good number of cows roaming the hills behind his barn however Howard has successfully shifted gears and revitalized his farm.

Howard is growing soybeans out there now.

It’s an interesting re-purposing of a longtime held view of what constitutes a family farm in Canada. Where he used to raise beef for the regional market, Howard now harvests soybeans for a buyer based in Japan. For the Japanese who have very limited available land mass, finding high-quality soybean growers overseas is a necessity.

There is no anonymity associated with growing soybeans for the Japanese market. Much of the relationship is based on trust and a deep understanding of the individual farm and the farmer who raises and harvests the crop. There are visits and photographs are taken. When Howard’s beans make their way all to Japan, the buyer knows exactly what the fields look like where they were planted.

Howard is a remarkably innovative and articulate thinker who ought to be sent out on an Ag Canada-sponsored tour to talk to other family farmers about looking well beyond the usual and customary to find ways to, literally, save the farm.

He walked me out to the fields where the soy plants were growing. Howard pulled one of them up and showed me the nodules in the root structure that create an increase in residual soil nitrogen as the plants breakdown after harvest. In other words, the soy plants help fertilize the land.

Howard discovered that his cows enjoyed munching on the weeds that were leftover after the soybeans were harvested. He also researched the nutritional requirements of beef cattle and began supplementing their hay with straw derived from the remnants of the soy plants.

And, because he’s so focused on creating meaningful change on his farm, Howard invested in the purchase of a relatively new combine fitted with a specially-designed hoover-vacuum-like head that sucks the beans right into the machine. He’s promised me a ride up there in the cockpit during the upcoming harvest. Emma said the combine looks like a house with a steering wheel and windshield attached. She’s really not that far off with that description.

Howard and the bean are expanding their grip on the farm fields in our area. He’s renting land on another family member’s farm and will be sending more soybeans to his buyers in Japan. I hope other farmers will pause in the process of drownproofing long enough to learn from Howard’s ongoing experiment with re-inventing his family’s farm. There’s so much to learn.

In the country, life happens.

Be well. Practice big medicine.

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