CASE STUDY: Earning a Homestead Living

Whenever I tell people that I live deep in the country, on an island at the end of a dead-end road, two hours from the nearest Tim Horton’s, the conversation usually swings around to some version of the same question: How do you earn a living? Some people who ask this question actually dream about working on their own terms doing something they love outside the city. Others are just curious. So let me share the details of one of the things I do to make ends meet here at the end of Bailey Line Road. Perhaps you’ll find it interesting and useful.

Maintaining rail fences is mostly about replacing rotted and broken rails with new ones. Here you can see replacements yet to shed their bark, while other rails in the same sections are more than a hundred years old. Photo credit: Steve Maxwell

I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto, but moved to Manitoulin Island when I was 22 because of a lifelong love of all things rural. My wife and I have been living on our 90 acre piece of farmland and forest for more than half our lives now. That’s part of our cedar rail fences to the right. I call myself a modern homesteader. This means that my commitment has always been to earn a living for my family in as hands-on a way as possible, without leaving the property to do it. As far as work goes, I pretend I’m under house arrest. I do everything I can to earn money without leaving the property. I divide my time between working at the computer and working on the property. Two years ago I steered the outdoor side of my work to include something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.

Back in 2014, my oldest son, Robert, and I partnered with some farmer friends to do something that hardly ever happens. We work together producing honest, wholesome beef grass-fed and dry-aged beef of the highest quality, then get this beef into the hands of people as directly as possible. We call our little venture Pure Island Beef, and like most new ideas started from scratch and outside the box, it’s been more challenging than we expected. More challenging, but definitely more rewarding, too.

cows_calf_pastureOur plan was simple enough. We’d raise Angus and Shorthorn cattle (world renowned for flavour) on our small pastures on Manitoulin Island, then sell the grass-fed and dry-aged beef across Ontario. We aim to achieve some very specific qualities in our beef that we don’t see often from other small producers. In fact, we’ve never seen any other farm do the things we do raising cattle.

We’re thankful that a growing number of repeat customers tell us that they taste the difference and keep coming back for more. My vision has always been to make Pure Island Beef the food equivalent of one of those boutique wineries that only produces small but well-appreciated quantities of wine each year. We’re small and I don’t expect we’ll ever get big. Small, but careful.

healthy_butcher_store_windowIn addition to supplying individual retail customers, we sell several sides of our beef each month to a fancy butcher shop in Toronto – The Healthy Butcher. You can see our logo at the bottom right of the window here to the left. The head butcher there tells us our beef is the best grass-fed beef he’s seen coming out of Ontario. I’m happy that it’s all starting to work so far – even if only in a small way. More than that, I’m thankful. Our experiences so far builds my faith in something I’d hoped could be true, but didn’t know or sure.

Have you ever felt that our world lacks a direct connection between people who eat and people who produce food? Even as a boy I felt this. I certainly do today. Whenever I visit the cattle on our pasture and check them, it feels really right that the goodness of our green fields is making it to people who want the same kind of connection to the land that I feel the urge to give. It’s a good feeling, and it’s one of the reasons I always love watching the cattle chow down big mouthfuls of grass. Besides the sight of these happy animals enjoying their lives, there’s the enormously wholesome sound of them grazing. It’s just a quiet, methodical chomping sound and I always find it calming.

One hot August night a number of years ago we had the windows in the house wide open. It was a full moon and I woke up at 3am to the sound of the entire herd enjoying some grass in the moonlight. I guess even cattle like a late night snack sometimes.

So there you have it. An example of a seat-of-the-pants business that helps make ends meet far away from the big city. Does it help you envision how the financial side of things can work outside the city? If you’d like to learn more, check out our website,  starting with a video tour of our cattle on pasture in the summer of 2015.

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