You can take the girl from the ranch but not the ranch out of the girl, says Linda of Courtney on grad day. All photos courtesy of Scott & Linda Heuston.
A Commitment for Life
Scott Heuston’s family has farmed in Balfour, British Columbia, since his grandfather bought the property in 1925. Scott is now in his seventies and still farming.
“I’ve been doing it for close to 60 years now. I’m running out of gas, but I still enjoy the cattle and enjoy doing things. It’s a matter of someone else doing the heavy work, and there isn’t anyone around to make that commitment.”
Scott always knew he wanted to be a farmer.
“When I was 8, 9 years old, my only goal in life was to farm. To raise cattle, grow grain, grow crops, grow anything.”
As a kid, his parents had 20-25 dairy cows. Back then, Balfour was an active farming area. The dairy produced in the Kootenays ended up on the tables of Kootenay families.
“In Proctor, Harrop, Balfour, there were 10 to 12 dairies that sold to a little co-op. Dairy was processed and bottled in Nelson.”
Scott has carried on the family’s ranching business since adolescence when the farm expanded to Creston.
“We bought land in Creston in 1951. I was down there. I didn’t have a driver’s license. I camped and worked, hauled back and forth by my parents. I worked and worked. Once we got bigger, I built a place and farmed on the flats. It was a commitment I made for life, to farming.”
The dairy quota system, instituted in the early 1970s by the Canadian Dairy Commission, made dairy the first product in Canada to be managed nationally.
“When they brought in the quota system, my parents opted out. They couldn’t do it anymore. It was too much work for just the two of them. My dad was a civil servant; he worked on the Kootenay Lake ferries all his life. That was when we switched and went into beef cattle. I’ve carried that on myself. I spread my wings.”
Scott spent 30 years running the Creston farm, tending to cattle, grain, and timothy seed for hay.
Far from a Cash Cow
The cattle industry has radically changed over Scott’s life. The Canada-wide beef cattle head count has been in steady decline for years. This year saw a decrease of another 2.6%. Scott tries to adjust, but it can be overwhelming. He hardly makes any money on the 30 cow herd in Balfour.
Scott and his wife, Linda, bought land in Saskatchewan in 2001 to try larger-scale ranching. For 20 years, Scott has travelled between ranches in Creston, Balfour, and Saskatchewan. His brother is running the Balfour farm, and he has a hired hand running the Creston farm.
“We wanted to move the herd because of disease problems because it’s so wet. We bought a big ranch in Saskatchewan and ran 750-800 cows there. We moved them to a drier climate.”
The wet weather has not been a problem for ranchers recently. Instead they’re dealing with drought, wildfire and smoke.
Heather O’Hara, executive director of the BC Association of Farmers’ Markets, explains how climate change threatens ranchers.
“Cattle ranchers and meat producers understand the challenges that climate change is presenting. Forest fires, the issue of feed and supply, and drought are top of mind for a lot of people who live and breathe this stuff.”
Come smokey or clear skies, Scott and Linda are still farming.
“My wife and I both like cattle; we work together side by side, we go check cows, we do everything together. If it weren’t for the two of us, it wouldn’t be happening.”
He worries that the low cost of beef is hurting ranching families.
“In the beef industry, offshore meat comes from Argentina, Brazil and Australia. They produce it cheaper.”
It is frustrating for Scott, who has worked tirelessly to have a reliable income. He has even worked in logging to supplement his income throughout his life. He faces challenges finding and keeping workers. In Saskatchewan, he paid up to $25/hour, provided a gassed-up vehicle and housing, and still could not retain workers.
“The farming community is getting pressed pretty hard. How do you attract people? That’s why we sold the cow herd in Saskatchewan.”
Another major challenge that Scott faces is the rising cost of transportation.
“Last year, we were hauling cows from Saskatchewan to Brooks, Alberta, to get processed. The cost of transportation keeps going up. You have to move the cattle hundreds of miles. It gets to be pretty costly pretty quickly. Pretty soon, you’re out of business.”
It frustrates him that there are fewer federally inspected meat processing plants across Canada. In 2010, there were nine such plants in BC and Alberta, and today there are five.
Three plants turn out 85% of Canadian beef: Cargill Foods operates in High River, Alberta, and Guelph, Ontario, and Lakeside Packers in Brooks, Alberta, is operated by JBS Canada, a Brazil-based multinational company and the world’s largest meat processor.
“The processing plants control the cattle industry: they set the price. I see that too few control it,” says Scott.
These plants process an average of 65,000 cows a week. Canada’s hundreds of other provincially inspected processors only process four per cent of the Canadian herd, or 4,000 cattle a week, which is a bit less than what Cargill’s plant in High River does in a day. In the near past, Canada was completely self-sufficient and able to process all our cattle. This changed with the mad cow disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)) outbreak in 2003 that all but destroyed the Canadian cattle industry and shut the US border for Canadian beef for two years. Regulations tightened after this, making it nearly impossible for small processors to survive.
In the past decade, smaller plants have been unable to compete with massive slaughterhouses in the US that can process tens of thousands of cattle per day. Experts are calling for more meat-packing facilities. However, recently, both Alberta plants have faced significant outbreaks of Covid, causing a huge backlog of cows stuck on farms, costing ranchers hundreds of millions of dollars in extra feed and lost revenues, explains the Financial Post in a May 2020 story.
Eat a Burger from your Neighbour
For Scott, buying local is the answer to these many problems. He is pleased with the market gardening efforts in the area.
“Small farmers’ markets have really helped. At Sunshine Bay, there’s a community market garden, and they sell honey and vegetables. The majority of people like to buy and will buy locally produced food. It doesn’t matter what it is; it’s a matter of helping the community be self-sufficient.”
Nowadays, around Balfour, Scott knows only one other small cattle farmer. He is not exactly hopeful about the future of ranching in the Kootenays.
“The majority of farming has literally disappeared. It’s too small. For farmers locally, your costs of transportation get high.”
The solution lies in producing food closer to the place of consumption.
“If you produce it here, it should be consumed here.”
Scott is happy that the government recently relaxed local abattoir/butcher regulations.
“They’ve got the poundage down that you can produce and sell off the farm without having to have it inspected. They just relaxed and changed the rules last year.”
Heather explains the changes.
“The BC government did a big consultation in 2020 about meat modernization licenses to encourage more meat producers to be able to sell their meat directly to consumers locally. The new regulations start this fall and encourage small-scale producers who don’t have a giant herd. It’s more accommodating of a small scale producer.”
Heather agrees with Scott’s view on selling locally.
“When a rancher or meat producer sells at a BC farmers’ market, they are selling directly to consumers. They retain more profit and have freedom to set their prices. It’s a good thing because they can price according to what it costs to produce the meat. It gives them a lot more leeway than selling wholesale into the conventional channel.”
“Locally producing and processing meat is good for consumers and ranchers. It gives me hope. These changes are moving in the right direction,” she says.
Hitting the Hay?
Scott hopes to (somewhat) settle down in Balfour soon.
“We’re trying to build a house at Balfour, semi-retire, look after 20-30 cows and do a bit of farming in Creston. Wind things down. I like doing it. But as you get older, you don’t have the gas to put in a 12 hour day or whatever it takes.”
He is unsure about what will come of his land and cattle.
“Silver-haired people raise the majority of cattle. There’s no one interested in taking over. Many young people will work, but they want weekends off. There’s nothing wrong with it, but at the same time, they’re not committing to do cattle anymore. You’re going to see a pile of cattle go to the market to get killed and not replaced.”
Heather reminds us that consumers can make a big difference in their communities.
“How you choose to purchase food has a real downstream impact on the people who are farming. You support community members when you buy locally at a farmer’s market, farm gate, or small-scale store supporting local producers. You have the purchasing power to make choices that are going to be good for local producers.”