Livestock operation believes in the benefits of diversification

PONOKA, Alta. — Mark Stewart recalls the most memorable teaching moment he received at Olds College in 1987.

“They said to diversify,” he said.

Not only did he take that advice to heart, but he and his wife, Tina, who own MSW Farms at Ponoka, have taken it to another level.

Tina was raised on a mixed farm at Bashaw. She earned a bachelor of science degree in animal science from the University of Alberta in Edmonton in 1997 followed by a degree in diversified livestock from Vermilion’s Lakeland College.

She now works as a project manager in Alberta Agriculture’s traceability department at Ponoka.

This herd of elk cows look over the Battle River Valley. To the right and below is one of the cabins that sits on the banks of the Battle River. The Stewarts rent them out in the summer for family reunions, weddings and company team building events and to golfers playing local courses. | Maria Johnson photo

“My entire life is agriculture,” she said. “It’s our family business and my nine to five job.”

Mark and Tina’s young children are Jenalee, 10, Owen, 9, and Erik, 6.

The Stewarts farm about 2,000 acres: three quarters owned and the rest rented, including land Mark grew up on. They run herds of grass-fed and finished livestock — 450 Texas longhorn cattle, 180 elk, and a small herd of bison — for breeding stock and meat.

A 4,000 sq. foot, two-storey white metal clad building dominates the farm yard. It’s the Stewarts’ all in one shop-garage-store-home.

“None of this was here when me and Tina moved a holiday trailer out in 1999,” said Mark.

Two years later, they’d built and moved into the shop which they added on to as the family grew. That cost was a total of about $250,000.

“Rather than build a house we decided to put our money into livestock to improve our genetics.” Mark said.

He said the plan was to live in the multi-purpose shop for five years and then build a house. In 2016, they bought an adjoining quarter-section of land.

Mark said it was an opportunity they had to take, but the debt is a stress so the house will wait.

Other inhabitants on the farm include nine horses, a couple dozen Tamworth Berkshire pigs, a handful of goats, free-range chickens, ducks, rabbits, cats and a big white livestock guardian dog.

Texas longhorn steers feed above the Battle River Valley at the farm Mark Stewart grew up on, which is adjacent to his and Tina’s home place. | Maria Johnson photo

The Stewarts market their products at farmgate, through a farmers market, and online. As well, they supply meat to restaurants in Lacombe.

Mark talked about the frustrations some producers feel when they raise meat animals for 24 to 36 months only to lose control over the end product at processing time and their product risks becoming mixed or inadvertently switched with other meat.

“We see why some of the bigger ranches have started to build their own abattoirs.”

The Stewarts farm organically but are not certified organic. The necessary documentation takes precious time required to run the ranch.

“And there are times when we have to buy feed, such as last year when we were 100 percent hailed out. We can’t guarantee purchased feed is organic,” said Mark.

The family prefers to show people how they farm through open houses and school tours.

“That’s where our kids really shine; when they’re telling other kids about the farm”, said Mark.

Their oldest daughter, Jenalee, led tours last August. Her public speaking training through membership in the Silver Valley 4-H Riders was put to good use.

MSW Farms has also diversified into agri-tourism.

The Stewarts also raise Berkshire Tamworth hogs. | Maria Johnson photo

Three rustic cabins and campgrounds sit on the banks of the Battle River that meanders through land below the farm site.

“The cabins are already booked for nine of the 12 weekends through June, July and August.”

They rent for family reunions, weddings and company team building events.

Forty kilometres of trails wind through forested areas of the ranch. They attract a variety of horse enthusiasts: equine endurance, poker rally, and leisure riders.

Alternatively, 600 to 700 high school cross country runners were bussed in from around central Alberta to run the trails last year.

A secluded meadow up-river from the cabins is the site of the increasingly popular Freezer Burn music concert held each June. This festival is entering its eight year at MSW Farms. Attendance neared 1,000 in 2017.

“There is the occasional noise complaint”, said Mark. “But they leave it cleaner coming out than it was going in. Their motto is leave no trace, which we’ve borrowed for people coming to camp”.

The Stewarts practice conservancy of the Battle River. They fenced off livestock access and use solar panel stock waterers to pump water from the river. They’ve planted about 7,500 trees along the waterway. Benefits include improving fish and wildlife habitat, slowing rainwater runoff, reducing flooding and erosion, and providing a more stable riverbank.

Elk horns are cut into pieces and sold as chew toys to pet stores and at farmers markets. | Maria Johnson photo

As members of the Battle River Watershed Alliance, Mark and Tina received an Outstanding in Stewardship award on World Water Day, March 22, as part of the Ponoka Riparian Restoration Program.

Mark and Tina participate in various agricultural internship programs like the Agricultural Youth Green Jobs Initiative and the WWOOFers program (World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms).

The Stewarts have a lot going on. Daily responsibilities take precedent but they also make time for fun. The kids toboggan nearby and in summer they float on tubes down the river, sit around crackling campfires under starlit skies and spend nights in the cabins.

As well, they all ride horses.

Tina shared a quote about a philosophy the family embraces: “Instead of going on vacation, why don’t you build a life you don’t need to escape from?” she said.

“We have everything we need right here.”

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