We’ve all heard how small-scale farms are dying off with our aging farmer population, and we’re constantly told how difficult it is for anyone to make a go of it here in the Maritimes. But visit the Seaport or Alderney Landing farmers’ markets, or any other around our province, and you’ll see plenty of exceptions to these rules. Chris de Waal of Getaway Farm is the perfect example: a come-from-away who moved here in 2009 with his extended family and became incredibly successful despite the challenges that Nova Scotia has thrown at him over the past seven years.
When de Waal met his wife, Leone, the daughter of Alberta beef farmers who had moved to Canada from Derbyshire, England, in the early 90s, farming wasn’t exactly part of his life plan. He and his wife just went off and lived their lives, having little to do with beef besides eating it. In 2004, three cases of mad cow disease discovered in Canada pretty much destroyed the lives of many beef producers, as they were no longer able to export to the U.S. Beef prices plummeted. “By 2007 my father-in-law had gotten out of farming because of how bad everything had gotten,” says de Waal. “We watched a farmer who had farmed all his life not farm, and that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.” De Waal and his wife knew they had to do something to help get the family back doing what they loved, what they knew.
The family always had a passion for grass-fed beef, and had been running 5,000 head of cattle a year in Alberta on grass. This should have meant that their beef was sold at a premium, but because they had just been going into the commodities markets, they would just disappear into the packing plants and nobody knew it was grass-fed beef. “So Leone and I pitched it to him: Why don’t you take this stuff direct to market, do it the way you want to do and sell it direct to the consumer, and we’ll help you do that?” says de Waal. After a campaign of long conversations and arm-twisting, de Waal convinced his in-laws, and the search for a new home began.
On a Whim and a Prayer
In May of 2009, the de Waals flew out to Nova Scotia to look into the opportunities here for small-scale farming and direct-to-market agriculture. They knew no one, and had never been to our fair province before. “Leone put a want ad on Kijiji looking for a turn-key farm, someone replied, we went to look at it, bought that old farm, threw everything that we owned into a 40-foot shipping container, and 10 of us between the ages of two and 92 — four generations — moved to NS cold, not knowing a soul,” says de Waal.
The farm they found on the North Mountain hadn’t been lived in for years, and the family had to live in tents on the front yard of the two houses on the property until they were restored well enough for people to actually live in. This was less important than the advantages the large property offered. “Most importantly it had a share at the farmers’ market cooperative, the old cooperative that used to run the farmers’ market. That meant it gave us a venue for selling meat,” explains de Waal. They were soon up and running, selling meat on the weekends while trying to get the farm going and restoring the houses when they could.
A Maritimes Welcome
De Waal describes the welcome that his family got when they descended upon their rural Nova Scotia community as “quite stunning.” For sure, they’ve had their fair share of iffy interactions when their come-from-away status has been made clear, but for the most part, he says, they’ve run into people who’ve welcomed them with open arms.
One early experience really showed them what Maritimers are made of. “The second winter here was really rough, there was a lot of snow on the North Mountain. This fella that lives up the mountain a bit, Ivan Rand, he has farmed here his entire life, and in the middle of a snowstorm he comes trucking down the driveway to make sure we’re ok,” says de Waal. “You’re not really used to that until you come here and realize that people are aware of their neighbours and are cognizant of what they’re going through. That was a clue to us as to what the strength of the community here is, and local food and local agriculture is built on the backs of that sense of community, and that’s why local food does so well in Nova Scotia.”
The family might have already had the necessary skills to raise grass-fed beef, but butchering and selling it was another matter entirely. “I had one year of a cooking apprenticeship under my belt, but in terms of merchandizing and selling meat and knowing how to do that, and having to work with whole carcasses — it was all a massive learning curve,” says de Waal. “I didn’t know a rib eye from an eye of round when I started, to be honest with you. It was ridiculous.”
The family was fortunate to find people in their community who were happy to help them ride that learning curve. “We were super blessed. We had a guy named Kevin Reid in Gaspereau who used to cut out meat for us before we opened the shops full-time, and he taught me so much,” says de Waal. “He taught us how to go about selling meat, understand what the different cuts were and how to merchandise an entire carcass worth of meat.” Reid custom cut for Getaway Farm for the first two years, before de Waal opened his first butchers’ shop at the Seaport Farmers’ Market. “At that point I hired a papered butcher from New Zealand who had all the mad skills needed to process carcasses on site.”
Skip forward to now and Getaway Farm is doing so fantastically well that theyrecently bought a second butchery in the Hydrostone Market, taking over Highland Drive Storehouse, which had been operating successfully in that location since 2012. “We have a team of five butchers, we process all of our own carcasses onsite at our butchers’ shops,” says de Waal. “When we started and were selling out of the farmers’ market on Saturday, we’d take the animals down, have them slaughtered and custom cut, and we’d take the meat down to the city every week,” says de Waal.
No Easy Job
Success like this doesn’t come easy, and the last few years have been particularly brutal. 2014 was a hard winter that held on so long that grass was slow to grow. Then add in drought and you have a terrible situation for someone running a business based on grass-fed cattle.
However, de Waal says that anybody who gets into farming knows that this life is full of adversity and that it’s a very hard way to make a living. The family still loves it here, though, and intends to keep on going no matter what. “We didn’t get into this to get rich or have an easy life. We did this so that we could work together as a family and pour ourselves into something that matters,” he says. “It’s been very rewarding to us because most farmers produce the food but they never have the connection to the people at the end of the chain who get to eat that food. We do. We see 1,200 people a week come in and by food from us on purpose.”
They also love Nova Scotia because they see real potential here. “This could be the perfect scenario for a locally sourced food system,” says de Waal. “We have the farmland, the fisheries, the shores. There is so much potential for producing food here. If enough of us push at it, and push hard, raising awareness, Nova Scotia can be a place that the whole world looks at and says, ‘Look at that, they are a food secure place with a robust food economy.’”
Obviously there are some barriers. “We need more farmers and more young people getting into farming. We need systems in place to encourage that. We need to give them access to land, make sure that they are equipped, that they have mentorship possibilities,” says de Waal.
More than that, though, we need infrastructure changes that will create a better climate for small farmers, and de Waal sees distribution networks and regional food hubs as key. He also thinks that when we see institutional procurement happening — that is, when schools, prisons, hospitals, etc., embrace local food — that’s when we are going to see big changes. This will never happen without those food hubs, though. “There’s a lot of demand, we just have to get it happening on a bigger scale.”
Logistics may not be the sexiest parts of the local food movement, but they are vital to consider if we’re going to help more small-scale farmers make a real living here. “We’ve built demand on one end and we’ve built production capacity on the other, but what we are going to run into is that middle piece, that way of connecting all the small-scale farms to large institutions, because no large institution is going to want to order from 35 different people to get the potatoes they need. They can make one phone call to a big provider and everything shows up,” explains de Waal. “If we had food hubs where everyone can send their produce for distribution, whether they are farmer-run co-ops or independent businesses, we will see the growth of small family farms and not just giant agri-business, and that’s pretty exciting.”
De Waal says that there are people in Nova Scotia looking at these logistical issues, and he is confident we are headed in the way he hopes. Working together is vitally important, and for new farmers lacking knowledge or all the equipment they need, leaning on others is the only way they’ll succeed. “In Cape Breton they’ve had a machinery co-op operating for decades, which is amazing, and there’s all sorts of gear that farmers in that area can borrow,” says de Waal. “I’d love to see more collaborative stuff like that, because growth in Nova Scotia isn’t going to be on the back of any one farm.”
There’s opportunity here, Getaway Farm is testament to that, and supporting our local farmers in any way that we can, but especially with our dollars, will only strengthen access to the local products that our lives here are so enriched by.