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Diversifying the small family farm

The best way to avoid pitfalls in new markets — seek the advice of successful sector counterparts

Direct marketing grass-fed beef was how Colleen Biggs turned adverse beef market trends into an opportunity for her family’s ranch in east-central Alberta.

“When times got really tough for us, we were doing the low-input swath grazing, bale grazing, everything we could to make ends meet on the ranch but when the market crash happened in 1995, it didn’t matter how sharp your pencil is, you can only go so far,” said Biggs, who, along with her husband, operate TK Ranch in east-central Alberta.

Colleen Biggs, ranch operator

Colleen Biggs, operator of TK Ranch in east-central Alberta, dispensed a variety of advice on direct marketing grass-fed beef at the Direct Farm Marketing conference held earlier this year.
photo: Jennifer Paige

“At some point you have to start looking at your different options. How can you see adversity as opportunity? We were at a point where we couldn’t reduce our cost of production anymore, so we began to think about how we could direct market our own animals,” said Biggs, who has earned a number of national and provincial awards for environmental stewardship and animal welfare program.

Biggs spoke to interested producers earlier this year at the Direct Farm Marketing Conference during a new stream of seminars centred on direct marketing grass-fed beef.

“It is really important if you are planning to take on a new enterprise to really think about what it is you are trying to do,” said Biggs. “I suggest making short-term, midterm and long-term goals and continually monitor yourself. Especially financially, see where you have been and what direction you are headed and be realistic.”

Manitoba producers, Cameron and Lisa Hodgins run a mixed operation outside of Lenore with Cameron’s parents. They have been diversifying their small farm in a number of different ways, including direct marketing their grass-fed beef.

“We have been farming with my parents for the past 10 years and Mom and Dad have been running the farm certified organic for close to 20 years,” said Cameron. “When we came onto the farm we began to get into cattle and the last couple of years we’ve moved into sheep and last year we expanded into chickens. We have a few different enterprises going on but none of them is too big or too small, it is just the right size.”

The Hodgins currently have 100 head of cattle; along with sheep, chickens, as well as a few crops, a honeybee operation and custom graze around 300 yearlings every year.

In the past, the Hodgins have sold organic meat, but in recent years they have moved towards grass-fed products as the consumer demand has taken off.

“We have always been organic and were finishing our animals without grain until around the last 100 days or so, give or take,” said Cameron. “But we decided to take it one step further because it really opens up a whole new market.

“The organic grain also isn’t cheap right now so to pour a bunch of organic grain into the cattle just wasn’t making a whole lot of sense and when people are asking for grass-fed meat, whether it is organic or not, we just thought it might be a good time to explore the market,” he said.

Cameron, who also works off the farm as a firefighter/paramedic in Brandon, leaves the majority of the marketing and sales to Lisa.

“Certainly a large aspect of the direct marketing is taking the time to talk with people and make a connection with them,” she said. “For the consumers, knowing where their food is coming from is usually the biggest selling point for us as direct marketers.

“We have had a few people who have asked to come out to the farm and meet the animals and we certainly love to do that kind of thing. We want our customers to know who we are and to be confident in the product that they are buying.”

The Hodgins, who were at the Direct Farm Marketing conference for Biggs’ presentation, also took the opportunity to network with others in the area who have been diversifying into similar markets.

“There were a number of speakers at the Direct Farm Marketing conference who are doing what it is we are doing and we find that there is just so much to learn from others,” said Cameron. “They have made the mistakes and avoided certain pitfalls and are willing to share their lessons with you.”

“I really enjoy hearing the real-life experiences and not just speculation on what should work the best,” said Lisa. “The people who have been out there doing this and are honest about what worked and what didn’t.”

For other small Manitoba farms looking to diversify, the Hodgins suggest starting small and asking a lot of questions.

“I would certainly suggest seeking out workshops and seminars but don’t underestimate the advice you can find from your neighbour down the road either,” said Lisa.

The pair also suggests connecting with the Small Farms Manitoba organization that hosts a website for small Manitoba operations.

“The Small Farms Manitoba website is a great resource because it connects you with like-minded people, gives you an idea of other people in the area who are actively doing similar things as you and also offers consumers a route to locate your operation.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Paige is a reporter centred in southwestern Manitoba. She previously wrote for the agriculture-based magazine publisher, Issues Ink and was the sole-reporter at the Minnedosa Tribune for two years prior to joining the Manitoba Co-operator.

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