Five years on: Wayne and Maria McDonald

Country Guide revisits the livestock operation of McDonald Farm

Wayne McDonald has never had a job off the farm and admits that he has no idea what nine-to-five is all about. That’s the way he likes it.

Now, thanks to some hard work and their very dedicated focus, he and wife Maria have managed to achieve one of the key goals they set themselves five years ago, which was to create a way that both could work full time on their third-generation family farm.

They have achieved that, in part, because they have grown the direct-marketing side of their business to the point where they sell virtually everything the farm produces direct to customers in Winnipeg, Brandon, Thompson, Gillam and Churchill.

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“Five years ago we had a goal to market everything that we raised directly,” says McDonald, who farms 1,120 acres near Cartwright. “We’ve got to the point where we have as many animals as our land can handle comfortably, and we’re direct marketing all of our beef and pork.”

Getting to know their customers

McDonald estimates the direct marketing side has tripled, if not quadrupled over the past few years. McDonald Farms hasn’t advertised for over seven years thanks to loyal, repeat customers and word-of-mouth referrals, as well as a more informed public that knows what it wants and sets out to find it.

“People approach us for two main reasons: they want to know where their food comes from, and they want to know who’s providing their food, meet them and shake their hand,” says McDonald.

Many customers are concerned about animal welfare and don’t always have a positive view on farming practices. “They want to know that the animals are being raised ethically and sustainably,” says McDonald. “The large, industrial hog barns have turned a lot of people off of pork in general. The people that approach us are interested in how our pigs are raised outside and not confined in any way.”

The biggest change over the past five years has been the growth of the farm’s sheep operation to 1,000 breeding ewes, which also now serves the conventional market, which in a way gives the farm an edge.

“We market a bit differently because we lamb in June, so our lambs are smaller during the Christmas period, when a lot of people are marketing their lambs,” says McDonald. “Our lambs stay on the farm and I wait until there aren’t as many on the market, then mine are ready and can be shipped. We are taking advantage of holes in the market because of how we manage and raise our animals. None of that is an accident. We’re thinking about how to work with Mother Nature, and as a result of that, we have animals available for a conventional market at a time when most other people don’t.”

Achieving milestones

Maria gave up her part-time job as a health care aide when their first child, Emma, was born four years ago. She has taken on the bookkeeping responsibilities for the farm, and is busy helping out where she can and managing Emma and her younger brother, Ethan, who just turned one.

Because the couple have hit the milestone they set in terms of direct marketing and maximizing the number of animals their land can carry, they have begun to diversify their product line, adding free range eggs, chicken and turkeys.

“We’ve hit our main goal and we’re trying to figure where we want to go from here,” says McDonald. “A lot is going to depend on what the kids want to do. I know they’re really young yet but we have got to be looking at the sorts of things they enjoy, and maybe incorporate them into the farm in case they express any sort of interest down the road. That’s a longer-term goal.”

For Maria and Wayne, holistic management coupled with direct marketing has proved a reliable way to achieve their farm goals.
photo: Sandy Black

In the short term the plan is to continue to increase the productivity of the land base they have, rather than buying more land, which, at the high land prices in their area, isn’t really an option at the moment.

“Our limiting factor here is water. If it gets dry, grass just doesn’t grow. So we try to retain as much water as we can on our place,” says McDonald. “Every year our policy is to spend some money to improve our pastures by spreading grass seed and that sort of thing. We roll out hay to improve fertility and concentrate on growing grass, then have the animals to harvest the grass, so our goal is to continually improve the land base that we have.”

Goals keep everything on track

The McDonald family are long-time holistic management practitioners. Wayne’s father, Jim McDonald, took a holistic management course in 1992 and was one of the first farmers in the area to adopt a regenerative system of rotational grazing and management based on holistic principles of land, people and profit. Wayne took the holistic management course as well and was invited to participate periodically in the holistic management group which used to meet regularly in the Cartwright area.

The biggest thing their holistic management training has taught them has been the importance of goal setting. “I’ve known people that are doing a thousand different things, and not accomplishing anything because they’re not following a trajectory that makes any sense for their farm,” says McDonald. “It’s almost impossible to progress in any kind of business if you don’t know where you want to go.”

Plus, McDonald finds “having the ability to sit down and brainstorm, and come up with short-term, intermediate and long-term goals, gives you the ability to self-check and assess whether the things that you’re doing now are going to help accomplish your goals next year, or five, 10 or 15 years from now. It helps point your effort and focus in the direction that is most beneficial to yourself, your farm, and your family.”

As an example, a major target is to get production costs as low as possible. “We have never wanted, and still don’t want huge overheads in terms of buildings and capital costs,” says McDonald. “I have a barn that was built in the ’60s that’s 20 feet by 60 feet and that’s it. I don’t have a mile of barn that I need to maintain and pay for. We calve, lamb, and have pigs out at pasture in June when it’s nice out and I don’t need to worry about having buildings for everything… that’s one of the things that we look at for cost savings.”

For the first five years after he returned to the farm, the McDonalds managed the operation without an operating loan or line of credit. “If we couldn’t afford to purchase something out of cash flow we didn’t purchase it,” says McDonald. “It wasn’t that we were opposed to operating credit, but our farm was relatively small potatoes at the time and no lending institution was interested in extending the small amount of credit we felt we wanted. Over the past 10 years, as our operation has grown, accessing credit has become easier. That said, we still believe in debt reduction and making sure that our financial ratios are optimized.”

A farming style that fits

McDonald wasn’t always certain that farming was the best career choice, and he took some time to explore what other career paths there might be for him. After going away to university at 18, he essentially stayed away from the farm until he was 27, taking time to learn about farming systems in other countries, and obtain his masters degree. “Part of the initial impetus to continue my education was the general consensus that there was no future in farming,” says McDonald. “After being away for nine years I felt that I wanted a lifestyle change and desired to move back close to home. My father and I had a number of discussions about future directions for the farm and I agreed to come back and become involved with the farm again. One month after I got back we had 250 sheep dropped off and began to move the farm in a couple of new directions. There was no particular time when I realized we were going to be successful. We just kept making incremental progress towards our goals.”

Over the past five years, the family has made some concrete steps in the transition process that began informally in 2002 when McDonald came back to farm. McDonald has gradually assumed more of the management responsibilities, and says the whole process has been made a lot smoother because, again, of setting some mutual goals for the business.

“If my father and I had drastically different goals for the farm, it would be tough to figure out how to progress but we’ve a similar general sense of where the farm should go,” says McDonald. “I maybe do things a bit differently to what he would have done, but generally speaking, the farm is going along the way we both would like. For instance, he had no desire to do any direct marketing. That’s something I decided I wanted to do and, along with Maria, we’ve put a lot of time and energy into that, and we’ve grown it into a successful business. It all still works with the overall goal of the farm in terms of sustainability, and holistic management, and rotational grazing, and multi-species grazing.”

The McDonalds are convinced that the holistic management style of farming can be a fit for both new and experienced farmers.

“It teaches how to set goals, and it’s a philosophy that allows young people to get into farming without having to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says McDonald. “It’s about ways to be successful farming on a quarter section or 40 acres. There are people that have been farming for decades who are interested in holistic management as well because it makes sense. Just the goal-setting alone is valuable, even if you’ve been farming for 30 years, just to be able to think about how to set goals and how to shift paradigms.”

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