WESTLOCK, Alta. — A hunting blind that greets customers entering the Westlock Butcher Shop signals the time of year when wild game needs to be processed into steaks and sausages.
“I’m surprised by the amount of walk-in traffic,” said owner Brian Mendieta.
He opened the shop recently after he and his wife, Jen, outgrew the abattoir and meat cooler space at their City Life Farms near Pickardville, Alta.
“We already had a thriving business and we just needed more space,” Brian said.
In three years, their business went from supplying one to three restaurants and from 10 to 60 home deliveries of food boxes a week.
As customers trickle in for cuts of beef, pork, lamb, chicken or custom processing, he said he is encouraged by the support the store has received.
He estimated the five employees serve about 100 families in the town of 2,000. Another shop is planned for St. Albert.
Brian splits his time between the farm and the store, while Jen, a former manager of an insurance company, handles marketing, social media and the website at www.citylifefarms.com.
The couple raises a host of animals on 160 acres of pasture, including 30 head of cattle, 11 pigs, goats and turkeys. Most are slaughtered at an area abattoir and delivered to the shop in a refrigerated truck.
They are breeding Large Black and Tamworth pigs, feeling the meat has a better flavour.
“They’re nice pigs with nice temperaments,” said Brian, who learned much from past jobs at a large hog operation and a cattle ranch.
The couple lived and worked in Calgary but left city life behind after Brian was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at age 29. That spurred the move to a simpler life in the country and a conscious effort to eradicate processed food from their diet.
They toured organic farms and observed different practices to see what they wanted to do and were helped by supportive neighbours.
“There’s a lot of knowledge to be captured around here,” Brian said of his agricultural community.
Added Jen: “People are willing to share and are happy to see young people getting into farming.… It started out just being sustainable for us and it grew from there.”
They believe in raising animals cage free without hormones and use antibiotics only to treat the sick. The animals are raised on grass and finished with just enough grain for maximum flavour and tenderness. The same goes for any farms supplying the meat shop.
“We have a hand in knowing the animal is going into the kill plant healthy. There is no question for me or my customers,” he said.
Direct sales to niche markets also mean better returns, they say.
The Mendietas are active in both church and community and host school groups at the farm.
Each year, City Life Farms hosts a pig roast and silent auction as a cancer fundraiser in their barn-abattoir, where a large second floor space is often used for yoga and could one day accommodate weddings.
They raised more than $11,000 in 2015.
Five years cancer free, Brian is challenged today with juggling a business, three young children and heavy rain in an already wet summer that dumped 75 millimetres of rain in an hour in August.
That meant flooding in both his house and store and led to a major renovation of the family home and a temporary relocation to an RV parked in the yard.
Despite the challenges and steep learning curve, Jen said farming has been rewarding.
“You can see your impact right away. It gave us an appreciation for how much goes into our food, and you don’t want to waste any of it,” she said, noting how she uses tallow to make soap, fat to make lard, and in the future, tanned hides to create rugs.
“We really want our kids to respect the land and animals and know where food comes from,” Jen said.