By Signe Langford
Nine generations of Ian and James Sculthorpe’s family have lived on and farmed 650 acres in Port Hope, Ontario. South 50 Farms is a mixture of rocky hills, spring-fed streams, and lush pasture, and the brothers have been gradually reclaiming and rehabilitating the land from the conventional crop farmers.
Ian, who only left to study agriculture at the University of Guelph, and then to work on farms in New Zealand, Australia, and elsewhere in Ontario is the fulltime farmer, while brother James, took another path, one that led him to Bay Street and a career in finance.
In 2012, James was reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. “Not to sound too cheesy, but reading that book was my ah-ha moment.” James had grown up on the farm, but now, in an office tower, he felt he was losing his connection to the place; going home and getting his hands dirty just made sense. James still lives in Toronto, and now balances his time on the family farm with his position as CEO of Yorkshire Valley Farms.
The thing about a family farm is it never really lets go of you.
Now, a herd of roughly 300 Red Angus and Devon cattle move from pasture to pasture, all year long, happily filling their rumens with a bovine salad bar of red clover, daikon radish, winter peas, sorghum, kale, and a few cereal grasses, until they reach a market weight of about 1,200 lbs.
It was in New Zealand where Ian was introduced to the wonders of grass-fed beef, though he will insist he’s not so much a cattle farmer as a microbe farmer. It’s the rich biome thriving beneath grass and hooves in the soil that make a farm a rich, regenerative, and sustainable thing. “We really farm microbes first,” says Ian. “Soil is the lifeblood of our farm, so we use regenerative practices,” added James.
Some models of farming are man vs. nature; a never-ending cycle of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, while the soil eco-system is dying, turning to dirt and blowing away with each aggressive tilling.
The rewards of regenerative farming are many: better biodiversity, no need for chemical inputs and of course, a product that is not only incredibly flavourful, but also much higher in Omega 3 fats. Typical feedlot beef contains high amounts of Omega 6 (not so good) and low amounts of Omega 3 (the good one), as much as 30:1, James said. Whereas, South 50 beef comes in at a ratio of 3.2:1, James explained.
“Peter Sanagan, of Sanagan’s Meat Locker, was our first customer,” says James. That was in 2009, when Ian was farming on his own, and had a mere 20 head of cattle.
“James, Ian, and I go back to when my shop was wee,” recalls Sanagan, “ Over the years our relationship has developed, and I get all of my 100 per cent grass fed beef from them.”
“I’m interested in the texture of the muscle and the herbaceous flavour profile,” says Sanagan. “I find that braising and stewing cuts do significantly well, like beef shank, brisket, and shoulder. These are cuts that don’t need too much fat, as the long simmering breaks down the connective tissue and keeps the meat tender. Additionally, grass fed beef makes for great tartare, as the muscles are so lean, especially leg cuts like eye of round and outside flats.”
At Tamarack Farms in Roseneath, farmers Nancy and Richard Self, raise certified heirloom non-GMO pigs – Berkshire and Mangalitsa – and several species of sheep, under the watchful eye of A Greener World’s Certified Animal Welfare Approved program. It’s a designation that requires livestock to enjoy a natural life, free of stress, medications, hormones or painful modifications – such as tail-docking – for a veterinarian to be present for castration, and for death to be peaceful. “Here, the barn doors are always open,” says Nancy Self. According to Nancy, her animals come and go as they wish. Even on the coldest days, the sheep prefer to take shelter in the forest or huddle together against one of the farm’s many fieldstone walls, rather than head into the barn.
Unlike conventional agricultural models which tend to barren fields planted with one crop – monoculture – regenerative farms such as South 50 and Tamarack maintain a variety of eco-systems on the land. With 390-acres, the Selfs have 14 pastures in rotation, 60 acres under cultivation, plenty of mixed forest, spring-fed ponds and 40 beehives, pollinating the gardens.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with these animals, and it matters to me how they are treated,” said Self.
The couple supply whole animal pork, lamb, mutton, and hogget exclusively to 20 chefs in Toronto and Prince Edward County, and to Olliffe Butcher Shop. Hogget is well-understood in the UK and New Zealand, yet almost unheard of here. “Hogget is a female sheep between young lamb and older mutton,” explains Nancy. “Lamb reaches market weight at between eight and 12 months, while hogget is between one and two years old. ”
Hogget is precisely the rare thing some chefs are looking for. Chef Anthony Walsh, Corporate Executive Chef for Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants, is a fan of Tamarack’s pork and sheep products. “Their lamb, hogget, and mutton are top notch,” says Walsh. “Hogget has a ton of depth, a bit bloody, mild lanolin, and medium on the woolly spectrum. I did the mutton most recently at an event in the County paired with puffballs and celtuce, and now Chef Ron McKinlay is running Tamarack lamb on the Canoe tasting menu for takeout.”
In Canada, mutton has something of a bad rap; we tend to think of it as tough and gamey, but, as Nancy explains, “The research has shown that if you want to avoid problems with disease one of the most important things you have to do, as hard as it is, is cull your breeding group for weak or vulnerable animals. Because your breeding group represents the best animals, while they may be culled, they are still very good animals; mutton only means it’s over two years of age.”
“I’ve been up at the farm many times,” says Walsh. “I really believe Nancy and Richard have done a huge service to the restaurant community and hospitality industry as a whole via their teaching and true cooperation with chefs .”
In Orono, at Kendal Hills Farm, husband and wife team, Dave Kranenburg and Emily Tufts, raise heirloom turkey, chicken and squab on 70 acres of pasture, rugged woodland and old apple orchards, in the Oak Ridges Moraine.
Four years ago, Kranenburg raised bobwhite quail and chukar partridge as well as chickens and turkey, but when the pandemic hit, he had to streamline, so he keeps his numbers low, raising only 50 turkeys at a time, squab, and roughly 3,000 artisanal chickens per year, all on pasture.
Unlike conventional chickens, which go to slaughter at seven weeks, his birds will take 16 weeks to achieve market weight, and it’s because of that extra time spent feasting on tasty pasture, eating greens and hunting bugs, these birds are delicious and also why folks are willing to pay a premium. “Conventional chicken costs about $5/lb, while mine is about $8,” says Kranenburg. “One customer said it was the best chicken he had had outside of France.” According to Kranenburg, the ratio of dark to white meat is more balanced – the birds don’t put on massive amounts of breast meat – and there’s more fat in the meat; it’s richer, more moist, and more flavourful. Kranenburg officially raises his birds through the Artisanal Chicken Program offered by Chicken Farmers of Ontario. Under their oversight, agents perform a rigorous 200-point inspection that takes into account, living space and conditions, feed, handling and processing. “As annoying as all the paperwork is,” says Kranenburg, “I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the support of the program, and I’ve been able to transfer the same standards to all my flocks.”
The pandemic was also the catalyst Kranenburg needed to build his virtual farmers’ market, Green Circle Food Hub. “I deliver once a week into town, door to door, and also I have two drop spots: Avling Kitchen and Brewery and High Park Brewery,” says Kranenburg.
In Toronto, Sam Campbell, head butcher at Avling in Leslieville, works exclusively with whole animals and some of the best farmers. “We’ve done quite a few dishes with Tamarack Farms mutton and lamb,” says Campbell. “A few that stand out for me are the Merguez I made, the mutton prosciutto, which is still aging in my chamber – seven months and counting! – and my lamb pastrami,” says Campbell.
Tamarack supplied Avling with pork. “We’ve gotten a couple of pigs from them,” says Campbell, “which I used for a plethora of dishes, sausages, charcuterie, etc. I actually still have some lardo curing, for over a year, just waiting for a special occasion to crack into it!” Campbell also works with chickens from Kendal Hills. “I’ve smoked Dave’s birds and used them in quite a few dishes.”
Polyculture, regenerative, closed loop; by any name, it’s a very different model, and it allows farmers to create a better product, to choose who they will sell their product to, and to demand a fair price for their endless hard work.