Couple balances off-farm job, family, marketing

SPRING VALLEY, Sask. — The pigs are rooting around the remains of a carragana grove and the chickens are pecking at the dry ground beneath a portable coop while a 17-month-old toddler sleeps soundly inside the farmhouse.

It’s all part of a family friendly approach for farmers Rhonda and Ralph Martin, who believe that careful land management and animal husbandry practices will eliminate the need for chemicals and leave the farm in good shape for future generations.

The vision for their quarter section Spring Valley Food Farms is self-sufficiency, so they looked for opportunities to direct market the variety of food they produce.

“It started out because we wanted to grow our own food, and we thought if we’re raising it for ourselves, we could feed some more people too,” said Ralph.

Rhonda makes four deliveries to Regina and two to Moose Jaw each month as part of the Farmers’ Table, a non-profit group of family farms working to distribute their products. The group helps with marketing and distribution of ethically and sustainably produced food.

Consumers can go online to choose from 200 items, which are then delivered to Regina. It hopes to soon do the same in Saskatoon.

“I firmly believe in eating your own food and that when we stopped eating local food is when our system got wrecked,” Rhonda said.

The farm is not certified organic but has not used chemicals in more than a decade. They keep chickens, beef cattle, pigs, ducks, a milking goat and a cow and plant a large garden.

The Martins’ Simmental-Angus cows are grass fed, and they sell about half of their young pigs and finish the rest. They believe their pasture-raised Yorkshire-Landrace pigs and Poulet Rouge meat birds offer many benefits, including better flavour.

“You really notice the difference at butchering. There’s no poop, no wet chicken icky smell,” said Rhonda.

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A small red barn houses the youngest pigs.

Pointing to a car sized manure pile outside the barn, Rhonda quipped: “Someone asks if I scrapbook, but that’s my hobby, hand cleaning the barn.”

Rhonda said it’s a delicate balance juggling volunteer work as a 4-H light horse leader and farm and family life.

“It was a little bit of a learning curve balancing kids with large animals. It’s a little bit hairy,” she said of doing chores with her son.

Being the full-time farmer can also lead to differences of opinion when Ralph returns on weekends from his trucking job.

“He’s a traditional farming man, what he says goes, and I’ve been doing it all week so there’s always some balancing there,” she said.

Ralph’s upbringing in an Old Order Mennonite family in Ontario can sometimes mean power struggles for the couple, but it also delivers a strong work ethic.

“When I build something, I build it to last quite a while,” Ralph said.

He said Rhonda’s strengths are in marketing what they produce.

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Rhonda, who was born near Yorkton, Sask., trained and raised horses in Alberta before buying the farm. She looked at more than 30 farms and then chose this one because of its good drainage and well water.

Ralph said small farms face big challenges.

“You almost need a little bit of a sideline for more income,” he said.

Their land base is too small to go bigger or raise enough birds to cover the expense of getting quota, he said. As well, more income and less debt are needed before any expansion can be considered.

However, it does provide a good family lifestyle, they say.

“Children have room to get out and about to be kids,” said Ralph.

The couple is currently in year three of a five-year business plan.

“All the infrastructure will be paid for in a couple of years and we’d be stupid not to use it,” said Rhonda.

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