Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

Local Food Week: a dairy farmer

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Today’s guest post comes from Jen Christie, a dairy farmer in Ontario. We connected on twitter a little while ago. She’s been a great supporter of my blog so I was happy to hear that she was interested in writing a guest post for Local Food Week when I put out the call a few weeks ago. She also sent me a bunch of amazing photos (with captions!) to choose from to include with her post. I couldn’t choose just one so my apologies for the inundation of images today. Hey, it’s Friday :) For more from Jen, you can find her blogging at Savvy Farmgirl or follow her on Twitter @SavvyFarmgirl.

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My nieces helping feed hay in the new dairy barn.

Note: Even with all my travel, work and volunteering, my favourite place to be is still the farm. 

This post is a tribute to my family who works day-in, day-out and encourages me share their story through social media even though I’m not there alongside them everyday. It’s because of them I’m so passionate about agriculture.

Why do we farm? It’s a question my family has talked about a lot lately as consumers, environmental groups and government put increasing pressure on how we farm. For us, the answer is simple, although the work itself is typically not so much.

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My brother getting ready to combine corn in the fall. If it snows early, sometimes we have to combine in the snow to get the crop off.

We love growing crops and producing milk for Canadians to enjoy. It’s in our blood. Our farm has been in my family since my dad’s ancestors emigrated from Ireland in the 1800’s. My mom grew up on a farm, which my Opa purchased after leaving his farm in Holland after the war. It’s been said that farmers grow roots in their land, and for my family, I believe this is true.

We are passionate about farming, and it’s nearly impossible to say what we we love most. When we talk about why we farm, my mom and dad and brothers will all name different reasons, then all agree with each other. Watching seeds sprout from the ground and then each day growing taller. Helping a new calf into the world. Listening to cows happily “munch” on hay at dusk. The satisfaction at the end of a hard day, feeling you did something.

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My brother helps his 5-year-old daughter wash her calf so she can take it to the local fair. Growing up, we all participated in local fairs, showing a different calf each year in 4-H.

The list is endless and among these reasons, there are also differences between my parents and brothers.

My dad loves the challenge of trying to breed the “perfect cow”. He started with a few dairy and beef cows from his parents and over the past forty years he grew our herd to 150 cows, with each generation getting better and better.

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My parents work together to roll out a bale of hay for the heifers. The hay is grown on our farm and baled into round bales or large, rectangular-shaped bales. 

By contrast, my youngest brother loves using data to make better decisions about cow care. We built a new barn two years ago and our cows are milked with a robot. The 60 cows we milk visit the robot whenever they wish, and the robot collects information he then uses to care for each one individually. Cow “Fit Bits” even tell him when a cow may be sick by monitoring her eating and walking habits!

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My brother sorts milk samples the robot has taken to test each cow’s milk quality.

My other brother loves being in the field. He loves big tractors and equipment and yes, probably some days, it seems he’s just a big kid playing with his toys. Behind the scenes though, he is always planning and trying to find ways to be more sustainable. He experiments with cover crops and is constantly striving to improve soil health, while also maintaining the amount of soybeans or wheat he produces.

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My nephew watches as we unload soybeans from the combine into the wagon. From there they are either stored for feed on our farm or trucked to a company who will export them.

Finally, my mom is fiercely proud of the calves she raises. She ensures they get a good start, paying close attention to each one of them as they grow up. She considers it our duty to produce a quality product which will make great butter, ice cream and cheese. She has done so, alongside my dad everyday for over thirty-five years, with rarely a holiday or a break. (I can count on one hand how many vacations we took as kids.)

Common for everyone is the opportunity to raise their family on the farm. Growing up on the farm served me well, teaching me the value of hard work, respect and compassion among other things. My brothers’ kids are following in our footsteps. At only 2, my youngest niece asks to go to the barn every night and her older brother knows the name of every piece of equipment. My oldest niece can explain to any visitor how the robot works and what we feed our calves and she is only 6!

It’s not all rosy though. Weather is always the biggest variable and of course, we have no control over it. Luckily, in Ontario we get pretty consistent heat and rain and we don’t experience the extreme droughts or hail Western Canadian farmers get. Equipment breaks and everything goes on hold to fix it. Cows get sick and sometimes even the vet can’t figure out why. It’s heartbreaking to lose an animal and it will often weigh on our minds when we do.

Then, there is the cost of operation. For us, land and quota are our biggest expenses. To continue supporting 3 families, we need to be able to grow. To make the cost more manageable, we try to add a little more land or a few more cows each year.

Despite the long days and heartbreak that comes with farming, my family wouldn’t do anything else. We love what we do and we love being part of a small community where everyone knows each other and pitches in to help.

For us, every week is “local food week” because the strength of our small town depends on its citizens buying from local businesses and participating in local events. We are grateful that Canadians buy our dairy products everyday and the least we can do is pay this forward by buying local and buying Canadian.

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The milk truck comes every other day to pick up our milk for processing into butter, cheese, ice cream, and pasteurized milk. 

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Author: Diana

I'm a registered dietitian from Nova Scotia, living and working in Ontario, Canada. My goal is to help people relearn how to have a healthy relationship with food.

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