In 1979, Ed Horvath took over the farm on which he grew up, 95 kilometres southwest of Edmonton.
And Ed noticed that the butterflies and garter snakes weren’t there anymore. So, in 1980, long before “organic” became a buzzword, Ed and his wife, Sherry, decided to raise animals without hormones, antibiotics or supplements.
Today, the couple’s Sunshine Organic Farm booth can be found winter and summer at the City Market Downtown, currently held every Saturday at City Hall.
And, the couple’s beef business has surged since autumn of 2012, when recalls were issued for beef products processed at XL Foods’ plant in Brooks, Alta.
“We’ve definitely noticed more demand for hamburger and ground beef, but people are more aware about their food now,” says Sherry. “And it’s not just about what happened at XL Foods. People want to know how their beef has been fed and how the animals have been handled.”
According to Canada Beef Inc., which markets and promotes the domestic cattle industry, the average size of a Canadian herd is 61 cows, much like the Horvath’s.
The Horvath’s raise grass-finished cattle, which take 27 to 30 months to get to market. A grass-fed cow (not finished) may only take 14 months to mature, as it may be finished with grain. The extra time it takes for grass-finished cattle to be ready adds to the cost, but more consumers are willing to pay for the wait.
In fact, to keep up with demand, the Horvaths could add more capacity to their operation. But they don’t want to do that because it would mean giving the animals food they didn’t grow.
“We could expand the business faster but that would mean bringing in things we didn’t grow. We will do the best that we can,” says Sherry.
Business is also growing at TK Ranch. The Coronation-area ranch sells to customers in both Calgary and Edmonton, and doesn’t grain-feed its cattle, but does use barley sprouts. The ranch won the National Prairie Conservation Award in 2010 for its environmental stewardship.
“The XL Foods crisis is far from the only incident that is making consumers reconsider their buying choices – all you have to do is watch the news or listen to the radio to discover how scary food has become for the average consumer,” says TK’s Colleen Biggs, who runs the ranch with her husband, Dylan. “The disconnect between people and their food grows wider every time a small family farm is forced out of business by this country’s cheap food policies. Is bigger really better when it comes to our food?”
When Biggs speaks of cheap food, she means the bulk cattle that are grown more quickly than Mother Nature intended, and then sold to large processors – which keep prices lower for consumers.
Biggs says TK gets a lot of emails from consumers “looking for alternatives to not only mainstream meat, but from organic factory farms and feedlots as well.”
And those concerns, especially about animal welfare, have been the biggest driver of TK’s business upswing.