Back in 2012, Michelle Schram and Troy Stozek’s biggest goal was to quit their off-farm jobs and farm full time. It’s something that Stozek has more or less managed to do, although Schram still works part-time at her parents’ ranch supply store.
Schram and Stozek originally established Fresh Roots Farm as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) business selling mainly chicken and vegetables to local and Winnipeg customers.
Growing vegetables for the CSA was labour intensive, and they couldn’t achieve enough margin to make it feasible to continue marketing that way. So, the biggest change for them has been ditching the CSA and concentrating on direct marketing beef and sheep as well as honey from their apiaries.
“We decided that sheep and cattle were the livestock choices that we wanted to focus, on and honeybees as well,” says Stozek. “We’ve expanded our apiary considerably. It’s to the point where it’s our main enterprise.”
Urban deliveries worthwhile
Their network of customers has grown steadily as they have worked hard on marketing and committed to regular urban deliveries. With their customers willing to pay a premium price for their grass-fed beef, lamb and raw honey, it has made the monthly delivery runs worthwhile, especially as they also supply 15 Winnipeg retailers with honey. “We have to restock our stores for honey once a month or so, so we decided it was a good fit for continuing to direct market our meat as well,” says Stozek. “We also have an online ordering system where customers can pre-order meat, honey or whatever else they want, and we meet up at a central location in Winnipeg where everybody comes and picks up their orders.”
Their farm land base has grown over the past five years. They have bought a quarter section from Schram’s parents, and also rent an additional quarter section. With the escalation in land prices over the past few years, the couple had to think carefully before purchasing the quarter, but decided it was feasible partly because of their plan to concentrate on higher value, pasture-based enterprises and use their holistic management training to maximize the productivity of their land resource.
“We have gotten better at looking at efficiencies and what works for us,” says Schram. “We only have so much time and so much labour, so we’ve focused on how we can best use it to be more profitable and not burn out.”
“We decided to focus on honey production because it doesn’t have a big land overhead,” adds Stozek. “That’s been a major part of our cash flow to help pay for the land. It represents shorter-term cash flow where it’s not all tied up in bills and overhead.”
They have also focused on improving the soil quality on their land, which has already increased the carrying capacity of their land by about five additional head of cattle per year. “It’s about regenerating organic matter, bringing back the soil microbiology that makes a healthy soil, and all of the things that come from a healthy soil,” says Schram.
“We’ve focused on increasing productivity with our cattle and sheep through things like higher stock density, adaptive grazing, and different ways to overwinter our livestock on the hay field, which means we are using every opportunity to maintain nutrients on the land. That’s giving us more grass, increasing capacity, and allowing us to have more animals that will help provide more profit in our business.”
Making the most of what they have
Currently, Schram and Stozek sell about half their cattle to the conventional beef market, and half as direct-marketed, grass-fed beef. With the demand for grass-fed beef constantly growing, they plan to switch to that market completely in the future, so are working with some better genetics for feeding and finishing on grass.
“It was great for our cash flow to rely on the conventional cattle market, especially as prices were higher over the past few years, but now that we see the demand for the grass-fed beef, and how we enjoy the process of raising them, we hope to get deeper into that in the future,” says Stozek.
One thing that has helped them become successful is using the resource base they have in the way that makes the most sense for them. “We’d be crazy to have anything but working livestock on this type of land. It’s not meant for anything else,” says Stozek. “What makes our honey marketable and successful is getting floral diversity into the nectars. There are all kinds of tame and native perennials such as wild flowers, alfalfa, and clover that give us the consistency and texture that everybody just loves. We may not get as much productivity as if we had our bees in the middle of a canola field, but people love the flavour, and it’s something that’s unique.”
The couple are also more active on social media, which they use to help build relationships with customers who can’t always take the two-and-a-half hour trip out to the farm.
“We are doing a lot of social media with pictures and videos, and little interviews, and I think it’s helpful in putting some reality into what we do,” says Stozek. “We try not to focus on just the cute, cuddly stuff; we try to give people a good dose of as much reality as we can through our information sharing.”
Their farm is definitely more successful and profitable than it was five years ago, not just because of the improvements they have made to the land, but also because of the awareness of their customers.
“There’s a lot of people now that are more educated and tuned in to what’s happening in the country and they’re looking for what we have, so it hasn’t been so much about us educating people as just being there to provide what they want,” says Schram. “There’s more and more people coming to us every month who are interested in what we’re doing and what we have.”
Still, financial challenges, particularly with cash flow, remain very real — especially when the grass-fed beef program requires animals to be kept on-farm for as long as two years before providing income.
Accessing credit — especially as new farmers starting out — has its challenges. “It’s very much a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario. If you don’t have the equity to borrow against, it can be quite difficult to gain access to credit,” says Schram, who adds they were able to make some informal leasing arrangements with family to help them build their initial livestock herd. “We feel fortunate to now have access to credit at low interest rates, which has helped us in the initial capital investment years. Compared to the interest rates our parent’s generation were facing 30 years ago, this is a good time to access financing.”
Despite the challenges, Schram and Stozek have never regretted their choice to farm, and for Stozek, the pride and sense of accomplishment he felt the moment their first calves hit the ground was all it took to reinforce the belief that he’d made the right decision.
Schram’s “ah-ha!” moment came with one of the first deliveries to Winnipeg, she says. “I realized how important the process and relationship of selling food directly to the families who would be eating it was, and the excitement of both parties to be a part of a local food economy.”
Becoming a part of the community
Being an accepted part of the community, and helping it to grow and thrive has always been important to Schram and Stozek, who admit that when they first started out with their CSA enterprise there were quite a few people rolling their eyes. That has changed as conventional farmers and others in the area have grown to understand the value of what they do — and that they know a thing or two about providing good, healthy products.
“I think just by doing this long enough, and showing people that we’ve had some success, and we’re not all that different in a lot of ways, it has validated the way we do things in people’s eyes because at first, the way we produced and marketed our products was quite foreign to most people in our community,” says Stozek. “Now, we sell products to people in our community, and it means a lot to us when people come and stock up with a bunch of honey as their Christmas gifts. There’s something to be said for providing food to our neighbours and friends, and it really helps to strengthen those relationships.”
Facing the challenges ahead
In future years Schram and Stozek want to build a farm that is profitable, and more resilient to some of the effects of climate change that they feel will become one of the biggest challenges facing agriculture.
“There are going to be lots of vulnerabilities with weather, be it drought or excess moisture… the more organic matter we can get into the soil, the less vulnerable we’ll be to those swings,” says Stozek. “Hopefully at some point, there will be a proactive enough policy scheme where we might get rewarded for some of those efforts. There’s not currently enough incentive for people involved in agriculture to keep their shelter belts for the role that they play in carbon sequestration and biodiversity, or to maintain sloughs that help hold back water. It’s almost the opposite; there are incentives to get rid of them at this point. The things that motivate us to do what we do are just trying to minimize risk and vulnerability, and increase enjoyment and profitability.”
Schram and Stozek’s biggest change is yet to come, as they are expecting their first child in the fall. “Another continuing goal, and we have not mastered it yet, but I think now we are starting a family we need to get a lot better at, is just taking more time for us,” says Schram. “That’s a big part of holistic management, is taking time for family and friends and not working yourself to the bone.”
“A lot of what we’re doing is focusing on what’s working in terms of generating financial success,” Stozek acknowledges. But, he says, they haven’t changed their basic strategy. “If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, you’re not going to give it the kind of energy that it deserves.”