Environment, animal friendly farming

Back to basics on Grass Roots Farm | Couple says physical labour builds character and a good work ethic

VANSCOY, Sask. — Arlie Laroche points to one of her chickens having a dirt bath.

“You wouldn’t see that in a normal chicken operation,” she said.

Arlie said the bird is ridding itself of parasites, one example of how stock on Saskatchewan’s Grass Roots Farm are treated differently than those in conventional operations.

Raising chickens on fresh pasture in portable housing that is moved every four or five days isn’t just a marketing gimmick. Laroche is committed to farming in a holistic manner.

“I think it’s better for the environment and better for the animals. I just think it’s a more natural way of farming,” she said.

“I think farming in this way benefits the soil and farming in a conventional way kind of pollutes it. It’s hard physical labour but I think that builds character. I like that my kids are being raised on this farm and seeing that things don’t just appear on a Styrofoam tray in the grocery store.”

It started as a way to feed the family but has since turned into a viable livestock business.

In June, Laroche quit her job in Saskatoon as a water resource engineering technician at Golder Associates to become a full-time farmer.

She is raising 21 pigs, 24 sheep, seven cows, 200 laying hens and 100 meat chickens on 140 acres of land near Vanscoy.

The animals are butchered locally and sold directly to about 40 mainly urban customers.

Her husband, Brett, is part owner of Catterall & Wright, a civil engineering firm focused on land development projects. They are parents to Maizie, 5, and Emmett, 3.

Arlie grew up on a cattle farm near Buchanan, Sask., and Brett was raised on a mixed operation near Birch Hills, Sask.

They lived in Saskatoon after finishing their schooling but that was a failed experiment.

“We weren’t city kids. We weren’t cut out for it,” said Arlie.

Brett is equally passionate about the farm. He wants his kids to grow up with the same work ethic he developed on a 550 acre grain farm with 30 head of cattle and an 800 farrow-to-finish hog operation.

“We weren’t mechanized at all. It was all kind of grunt labour. It taught me a lot about hard work,” he said.

Raising chickens, pigs, cattle and lambs on pasture is labour intensive but Brett thinks it is well worth the effort when they provide consumers with the finished product.

“You’re giving good, nutritious food to people you know and care about, so it’s kind of cool in that respect,” he said.

However, he isn’t enamoured with all aspects of the operation.

“I have no interest in chickens myself. I grew up having to butcher chickens as a kid and I hated it,” he said.

Brett has a similar disdain for Arlie’s three garden plots. He doesn’t have fond memories of hilling 600 potatoes as a child.

His role in the farming operation is limited to driving the tractor, fixing equipment and creating housing for the animals.

One of the couple’s mentors is Joel Salatin, an American farmer and lecturer who promotes his unique style of sustainable livestock management.

His philosophy is to have cattle graze a pasture followed by chickens in portable coops. The birds eat what is left of the grass in addition to digging through cow dung to eat fly larvae.

When the chickens are done with the patch, it’s like a “nitrogen bomb” has exploded, said Brett. The new grass that emerges is more lush and green than pasture that hasn’t been grazed in that manner.

A similar approach is employed in spring when Arlie turns her pigs loose on the hay pack left over from housing cattle in the winter shelter.

“They just turn it into dirt. They root it all up and it makes really great compost for the garden,” she said.

The pigs also eat grass, spent brewery grain and table scraps.

“The pork is really popular because it’s rare to find pastured pork,” said Arlie.

The couple is committed to growing the business in a slow and sustainable manner.

“We don’t need to be multi-millionaires and turning this into a large operation,” said Brett, who wants the business to remain nimble, flexible and independent.

“Don’t sign contracts with anybody. Then you’re not working for yourself anymore.”

Arlie also embraces the slow and steady approach.

“I don’t really do any marketing at all. It’s nice to have it grow through word-of-mouth because it seems to generate really loyal customers,” she said.

Arlie typically charges a premium over conventional meat found on grocery store shelves.

Currently, a side of beef sells for $5.50 per pound, pork is $4.85 per lb. and lamb is $5 per lb. Free-range eggs are $5 per dozen and pastured chicken is $4 per lb.

Arlie has friends who help on the farm in return for meat and she recently signed up for the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms program.

Visitors spend time helping on the farm in exchange for food, accommodation and education.

Arlie said it helps fill the social void she is feeling since leaving her job in Saskatoon.

“It’s fun to have somebody to work side-by-side with and I feel really passionate about the way that we farm, so it’s a way for me to kind of spread the word and show other people how it can be done,” she said.