Organic system worth effort for Alta. family

Accelerated fertility | Intensive grazing restores life in cattle pastures damaged by past droughts

CLANDONALD, Alta. — In the world of certified organic farming, the Axe family considers itself pro-life.

“We want life in the soil to pop,” said Tim.

He, his wife, Maighread, and her mother, Ann McCormack, share a farming life and Catholic faith. They’re also part of EAT Food for Life, an association of small family farms offering consumers meat and bulk mixed packages to order.

The farm, which was named Terra Caritatis Patris to honour their fathers, land and God, is nestled in the rolling hills of Alberta’s Lakeland region near Clandonald.

Learning about organics has been like acquiring a second master’s degree for Tim, an Ohio native who has studied engineering and religion.

The family’s accelerated fertility practices include buying bales from Maighread’s brother.

“We’re bale grazing to get manure in areas that need it,” said Maighread.

“Others haul them out and we haul them into the field,” she said. “We’re starting to see the difference now from one to two years ago.”

The Axes relate how overgrazing through a drought in 2002-03 led to devastated pastures that today house robust stands of alfalfa through intensive grazing practices.

“This is helping us understand that we can do a great deal with what God gives us,” said Tim.

“It taught me how God gave us animals to take care of and, in turn, they take care of us.”

They raise 30 grass-fed cow-calf pairs, calving out in May. They also have 60 meat chickens, 50 laying hens and 50 turkeys on a one section farm with help from a part-time labourer.

They grow wheat and feed and use an abattoir in Vermilion for beef processing and one in St. Paul for poultry.

Tim saw potential for improved revenue from making the laborious switch to organics, which involves a lot of paperwork, regular inspections and numerous regulations.

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“I was interested in a niche that could help with revenue for the farm,” said Tim.

“We can no longer afford inputs, so we rely on the land to give us fertility. It gives us huge dividends,” he said.

“It’s a lot of work to do it, so we need to see some results,” said Maighread.

They use no-till practices, graze the land before seeding and use cover crops to slow weed growth.

“You have to change your mindset to work more with the land than against it,” she said. “We had to become flexible and be willing to try new things.

“We’re doing things I never imagined we could do.”

McCormack once did the bookkeeping for the farm but has now retired to her life in the family home, where the Axes continue to call upon her for input and help with their two young sons.

“She’s a valuable part of our farm,” said Maighread.

Farming was a steep learning curve for a young McCormack, who met her Irish born husband, Conn, when she visited the district from Ireland in the 1950s. She coped at first without electricity in a drafty pioneer home.

“I knew what I had ahead of me,” said McCormack, who chose to keep the farm after Conn died.

“It was home,” she said.

That meant she and Maighread, who worked off farm in office administration, had to quickly learn farming practices and machinery operation.

Today, organics and local sales have allowed the Axes to know their customers, they say.

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“We knew the face of our customers,” said Maighread. “They’re not a faceless entity in a grocery store.”

The Axes tried farmers markets but found that took too much time away from the farm.

“If away that much, either the family or the farm would suffer,” said Tim.

They instead adopted the community supported agriculture model, offering a half or quarter of beef and selling into a major urban market and through a website, www.eatfoodforlife.ca.

They co-operate with other producers to provide pasture raised pork in addition to enough chickens and grains to ensure a supply for the marketplace.

The Axes try to get as much of their food from their farm as possible.

“It’s important for me to know what goes into their bodies,” said Maigh-read, who has two loaves of Irish soda bread cooling on the counter this day.

Maighread met Tim through an online dating site. Both wanted to farm and both of their fathers died of cancer.

“Health is a powerful motivator. It is more challenging to do it this way, both from the farming standpoint and from the meal preparation standpoint, but we know what we’re eating and we choose to grow and eat food free from chemicals, hormones and genetic modification,” said Maighread.

She said the pull of higher paying jobs in the oil patch takes youth away from the farm, but they accept their lower wages and standard of living to be farmers.

“We traded making a good living for having a good life,” Maighread said.

Tim agrees.

“In farming, you have to work hard and make sacrifices,” he said.

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  • richard

    Funny how all those who live to be at war with nature have suddenly discovered that its a war they can never win……

  • Tim

    Yes, that is very true. What is just as incredible is the Joy that is available when the focus is on all that nature has to offer. Suddenly, fields are no longer a plot of dirt to plant seeds in and treat with synthetic inputs. They become a life giving source much like the womb. And you realize that it is just as important to feed the life in the soil as we do the life on the soil to produce nutrient-dense and delicious food.

  • Joan Reyda

    Thanks to the author for this well written article. Maighread and Tim’s hard work and sacrifices are much appreciated by me and my family. We have been buying their grassfed beef for several years and love it!

  • Ken

    It is good to see a farm where organic production is beginning to show a turn-around in soil fertility and sustainability. In a culture dominated by massive purveyors of chemicals and genetic modification, it is commendable that this paper chooses to publish articles featuring an alternate way to feed the world.

  • Cathy

    Very interesting article! Thanks sharing your insights and experience.