LANIGAN, SASK. — Ben Martens Bartel has a vision for his farm that likely differs from many other prairie operations.
“I’m not interested in growing it,” he said.
Ben doesn’t believe farms should get bigger because that decades-long trend has eroded rural communities.
“I see how our services disappeared and how our community events are a shadow of what they once were,” he said.
There used to be eight families within a three-kilometre radius of the farm where he grew up. Now there is one.
Ben is determined to stay lean and focus on decreasing costs rather than increasing production on the small livestock operation he runs with his wife, Lisa, and his parents, John and Denise Bartel.
Grovenland Farm consists of three quarter sections of pasture and hayland, 50 head of cattle, 50 pigs, 1,000 chickens and 150 layer hens.
Ben and Lisa became interested in the local food concept while working on a small farm internship program in Manitoba where they helped raise livestock and sold the meat directly to consumers.
“That taught us both things we want to do and a few things we don’t want to do,” said Lisa, who was raised near Steinbach, Man.
That was followed by a winter working with refugees on a U.S. farm in Georgia, gardening and raising chickens and goats.
Those experiences compelled the young couple to approach Ben’s parents about working together to form a small livestock operation that sells meat directly to local consumers.
“When we came and told them, ‘hey, we want to maybe do this and the only place we can afford to do this is on your land, what do you think about that’, we didn’t have to convince them,” said Lisa.
Ben said his parents’ beliefs were aligned with theirs.
“With multigenerational farms, when the next generation wants to do something different, there’s usually resistance. And in this case there wasn’t.”
John’s grandparents bought the land in the 1930s and were grain farmers. His father started a dairy farm in 1973 that John and Denise took over in 1984 and ran until 1995 when they sold their cows and quota and decided to try conventional grain farming.
John grew weary of high input costs and the corporate influence in grain farming, so he got out of farming but maintained a small cow herd.
“We got interested in food justice issues about the same time, about people being able to access good food that is produced locally at fair prices,” he said.
So it was fortuitous when Ben and Lisa approached them with their idea. The new venture was launched in 2011 and has exceeded John’s expectations.
“I was fairly wary of its viability at the start,” said John.
Denise said the kids are the face of the business and have excelled at learning how to market the meat and produce.
“They’re fantastic and it has been really nice to work together,” she said.
Ben said the business has been as difficult and rewarding as they anticipated.
“We’re neither getting rich nor going hungry, I suppose,” he said. “It is going OK. We are making payments on the land.”
It is not a certified organic farm but they employ many of the same principals in raising their livestock.
Ben also believes in using holistic management practices such as high intensity grazing followed by long rest periods because it im-proves the health of the grass.
They believe that ruminants do not need to eat grain, so they have focused on cattle that are finished on a diet of grass.
They butcher chickens on the farm but the cattle and pigs are sent for processing in Watrous and St. Gregor. Most of the meat is sold directly to families but some goes to restaurants.
Lisa is thrilled that their three young sons, Jacob, Felix and Kaleb, are learning where their food comes from. They are often sent off to the garden patch to pick their own snacks.
The couple thought their products would appeal to millennials who are keenly interested in the local food movement, but most of the meat is being consumed by the older generation, who are used to buying in bulk and have freezers for storage.
Millennials are buying vegetables from the farm, which are sold through a community shared agriculture program where consumers get a box of in-season vegetables every week for 15 weeks.
The marketing side of the business has been trickier than anticipated due to the low population density in the surrounding area.
Initially Ben and Lisa thought they would be able to sell a lot through the Humboldt Farmer’s Market but there was no money doing that.
“I’ll be honest, the pigs and chickens ate a lot of lettuce,” said Ben.
They have had to expand their reach, with half of their sales now occurring in Regina and Saskatoon. They are also selling products via a website operated by the Farmers’ Table co-operative.
They recently started selling small bags of meat in addition to sides and quarters because it appeals to millennials.
“I have to figure out how to offer the convenience of a store without paying the store,” said Ben.
The couple has discussed diversifying into raising sheep or becoming an agritourism destination but it will continue to be a small, cost-focused operation.
“I don’t think farms should get bigger. It’s been bad for our community,” said Ben.