The Neophyte Farmers
YU Ranch 460 Plowmans Line, Tillsonburg, Ontario
I received the email in mid-July: "Hey Bob, Cathy and I are trying to plan a short vacation in the coming weeks and would like to offer you the farm sitting chore…” Yikes! I had told Bryan Gilvesy that my wife Sue and I would love to babysit their farm, YU Ranch, anytime. I probably had finished my second pint of beer when I made the offer. Regardless, my response was "sounds pretty good to me”. We were now committed! I had been raised in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, and often saw farms when traveling between cities. That was it! Sue was from Sydney, Australia where she spent a lot of time on, and in, the ocean. Luckily her mother and father had both been raised on farms in the not too ‘outback’. At least she knew a little of the farming life through visiting cousins and grandparents… the emphasis is on little.
YU Ranch is an award winning farm that raises Texas longhorn cattle under range conditions – this means the cattle are only fed grass and hay (dried grass). The grasses include towering native ‘tall grass prairie’ which is ideal for ecological restoration. No hormones, antibiotics or animal by-products are included in the feed. The meat is very lean and high in omega-3’s. The farm’s story has been featured in many media channels including the New York Times and CBC’s Radio show ‘Ideas’. No wonder!
Bryan bought what was a tobacco farm in the late 1970’s and started converting it to a cattle farm in 1993. Eventually he shifted to a grass based beef operation. Presently they’ve acquired 225 head of Texas longhorns and created a model operation. The list of awards are too many to cover in this article, but a few are worth noting:
- 2007 Premier’s Award for Agricultural Innovation
- 2008 Canadian Agri-Food Award of Excellence for Stewardship
- 2009 International Texas Longhorn Breeder of the Year
- 2012 Environment Minister’s Award for Environmental Excellence
- 2013 Canadian Farmer-Rancher Pollinator Award
Along with these accolades the farm also has earned ‘Local Food Plus’ certification which ensures local, sustainably raised food. And, finally, YU is part of the nationwide ALUS (Alternative Land Use Services) program whose goals are to "create a healthy landscape that sustains agriculture, wildlife and natural species for all Canadians.” When you add it all up, YU is a pretty impressive place… and it’s remarkable reputation kind of made our babysitting assignment a little daunting.
Sue and I arrived early on a Thursday morning as Bryan’s family (children Paula and Joe along with Cathy) were packing up the car for their trip, via Toronto airport, to New York City. Bryan said they had done numerous trips to places like Yellowstone but the kids felt they’d hardly left home… it was just more beautiful country (when you see YU Ranch, you’ll understand). So the family likes to visit urban destinations, especially big cities like Toronto and Montreal. It helps that they are all ‘foodies’ and love to dine out at the trendy restaurants in these cities. Bryan and Cathy gave us some last minute instructions regarding the property. Fortunately, our main job was to look after the four dogs – marvelous border collies (Gunner, the lone male, Lady and Daisy, and a new puppy, Trixie). The good news was knowing ranch hand Abe looked after the longhorn cattle. Phew! They’re majestic animals to look at, one of the only breeds in North America not bred for their fat, but as fledgling ‘farmers’ Sue and I wanted to stay clear of the herd. Those horns looked like they might be able to do a little damage if you got on their wrong side… and we didn’t have a clue as to ensuring we were keeping on their right side! Thanks Abe!
We waved goodbye as the Gilvesy family drove off to the airport. After a few minutes of reflecting about what we just got ourselves into we beckoned the dogs, clapped our hands and marched into the woods. We followed a well-worn trail down through a gorgeous valley with a lovely stream. The water was crystal clear. The dogs were soon prancing around in the stream and shaking off next to Sue so she too could enjoy the water. We continued to the other side of the valley in the Carolinian forest full of all sorts of trees. Ferns and mushrooms were everywhere. It was a place that immediately lowered your stress level. It would have been interesting to check our blood pressure at that end of the walk – I bet it was lower than our doctor had ever seen at our annual check-ups.
Perhaps the greatest pleasure Sue and I experienced during our four day weekend at YU was watching the dogs work and play. Actually, you can hardly tell the difference. When they are out with the cattle they are cleverly stalking the animals and herding them in the direction as directed. They instinctively seem to anticipate each move by the cattle. Meanwhile, when playing, they are doing the same thing except it’s now with each other. As we walked through the fields and forests the dogs take turns stalking one another… then suddenly they take off like a rocket. The whole phenomenon reminded me of what I look for in managers. I try to find people whose personal habits are those that will help my business. Someone who is fastidious with their house or car will also be a manager that will be very detailed oriented in business. The dogs, when playing, are always preparing for their cattle work. Best part of all, they are having a lot of fun doing it. That should be everyone’s goal when choosing a profession – make sure it’s something you enjoy doing in your leisure time. People who try to separate work and play are in an unfortunate situation in my books…
As the long weekend progressed Sue and I settled into a perfect rhythm. Early morning walks with the dogs. Day trips to local breweries, wineries and, of course, vegetable farm stands. It is no wonder they call Norfolk County ‘Ontario’s Garden’. There is so much to explore in the countryside, along with some first class beaches. One late afternoon we took off for a quick dip in Lake Erie at Port Burwell. We also had a number of visitors including my son Court and partner Kristen. Of course we headed out to Bryan’s pond from where he pumps water up to containers for the cattle. It wasn’t to see the solar panels that power the pumps but rather to fish. In less than two minutes Court caught a six pound bass! We released it and went back to cook up a tenderloin on the family barbecue/smoker. Delicious. As my son and partner drove off we took the dogs for their early evening walk. Then we yelled "bedtime guys” and they charged into the barn (I wish my kids had been that obedient!). The day ended just like every other day on the farm… doing "farm sitting chores”. OK, we didn’t do much ‘farming’ and we’re still rookies, but we certainly found some real peace in that beautiful piece of land. Actually, awards aside, it was the magical ambiance from birds to trees to prairie grasses to wild flowers that will stay with us. And there’s no prize for that… it’s too good to describe.