Life All Around: The Joys and Challenges of Small Farming with Bill Parke & Blackview Farm

Bill Parke of Blackview Farm, a pasture-based livestock farm that uses rotational grazing and Holistic Management practices, was nice enough to sit down with me and talk for a bit about the farming life.

To start off, could you tell me a little about your farm?

We have a small farm, 100 acres, in Listowel, Ontario, Canada, with my wife, Michelle, and two kids, Carly, and Lincoln. We started our grass-based farm about seven or eight years ago as an experiment.  We also wanted to try to farm without also working off the farm, which is what everyone does, especially in Ontario. At first, we were working full-time jobs plus doing the farm and marketing.  We chose the grass-based farming methods because it’s a healthier alternative and better for the animals.  Also, after meeting author Mark Schatsker and learning that grass-fed beef can be some of the best beef you can ever eat ( it can also be the worst), then I wanted to take up  the challenge.  After that we introduced the pigs, and then geese, ducks, and chickens into the mix.  As far as machinery goes we have two tractors and an ATV.  We bring in some organic grain for the pigs, which we grind on the farm. Everything else we feed is pasture and hay.   The cattle are 100% grass-fed.

How many of each species do you have right now?

We have 25 cows and their calves.  It takes from two to three years to finish the calves for market. We have 200 pigs, that includes 20 sows, and four boars.  We feed the pigs for 10-12 months – we grow them slowly. We have 500 geese, 500 ducks, and about 2000 chickens. We also have 200 French Guinea fowl.   It’s a one-stop shop for the local restaurants that we work with here in Ontario.

What’s it like raising Guinea fowl? 

They’re really noisy, and they fly.  They’ll fly into the trees, but they won’t go far.  Also they’re hard to catch. So those are the downsides.  But you can herd them, unlike chickens.  You just have to learn how to work with each of the different kinds of fowl.  What I actually got them for, mostly, was predator control.  If they see a predator, say a hawk flying above, they’ll make a huge noise and alert the other animals.  So they’re good for that.  Also they are very good eating, are a nice size (3 1/2 pounds) and they can finish in  90-120 days.  The French restaurants love them.  They’re  a hot item and you can make good money. Not many people are raising them because they’re so noisy.

So tell me. what’s your favorite part about farming?

Being self-employed is a big one.  I really like being out on the land, I love seeing the land heal.  I like the progress that you can see when you’ve accomplished something.  When you’re working a desk job you don’t always see what you’ve done after a day’s work.  When you’re farming you can fix something and you can see how it helps make your operation better.  When you heal an animal that is sick, that’s a big accomplishment.  If you have a new-born calf and you see it growing, that’s something. Seeing life all around you, it sounds clichéd, maybe, but it’s a good feeling.

I also like the marketing side, seeing your animals being born and then going right to the end, where you get to taste the final product, or on the menu at a restaurant.  When you’re farming you don’t necessarily get to see that.

When I was growing up we would raise and sell stocker cattle.  You  sell them right after you weaned them off their mothers (6-9 months old) and you don’t get to see the final product. Your whole years work is auctioned off in a matter of seconds, and you don’t know what price you are going to get either, at an auction house.  And then it’s over and you go back to your desk job.

I love seeing the whole process, from birth to the customer’s freezer.  That’s huge.  Being able to monitor quality.  That’s fun.  Like this year we kept a Wagyu-Angus cross-bred animal on grass for an extra year.  We got crazy marbling, just on grass.  It was triple-marbled.  You’re playing with it, you’re learning all the time.  How can I do this better? I like the challenge.

What could you use some help with?  What are the difficulties that you have?

As I was telling you earlier, banks won’t look at us.  A credit line would be lovely.  Because beef takes up to three years to finish and then you have butchering costs, aging, packaging, and then you have to deliver it.  Then you have to wait for the restaurant to pay.  Timing is always a hard thing, trying to build your business so that you have a steady supply.  Banks, in Canada anyway, they love you if you are part of the dairy quota system or growing chickens.  There’s controlled income.  They love it if you have an off-farm job.  It’s hard as a young farm business…unless you’re doing what everyone else is doing.  That’s been hard but you find a way to make it work.

I always compare our farm to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm.  I visited a few years ago and it was very refreshing to see that it looks like my farm.  It’s not this glorious pristine farm with a big sign at the front.  There was mud, there were pig manure piles, there were a lot of animals and some were inside the fence where they were supposed to be and some were out, and that was encouraging.  It was nice to see that it wasn’t perfect.  I got to see that I wasn’t the only one that has these problems.

Farm community – that’s another thing.  There are a few other people with similar farming operations near where I live, but not many. Most people who are farming just do what everyone else does, you know, the big tractors, GMO’s, crop insurance, all that.  So it would be great to have more of a community where we could share our woes and learn from each other’s experiences.  There’s a lot of things I’m having to learn from scratch, especially with the heritage breeds that I raise. For example, I experimented with raising a heritage breed chicken called the Nova Brown breed from Nova Scotia last year.  What I didn’t know was that they couldn’t handle cold nights.  So I lost a bunch of them, just not knowing this peculiarity of the breed. But that’s farming, you have to figure things out.

You and I have talked about heritage breeds before, and how interesting it can be to work with some of these older breeds. Could you tell me about the heritage breeds that you raise? 

I’m not doing too much with heritage breeds with the cattle.  We’re using an old line of Hereford cattle from Wyoming that were established in 1927, they’re shorter, they’re stockier.  I really like them because I’m trying to go back to those grass-fed cattle that grandpa used to have.  So I’m crossing those with the Angus.

With the pigs we’re using Berkshire, Tamworth, Mangalica, Large Black. We’re focusing on the Large Black because we’re trying to replicate a good forager like the Iberians in Spain.  What we want is pig that we can raise slowly, for 12-14 months and will forage – eat grass, and they will eat  a lot of grass especially in the later few months.

For chickens, we have Barred Rock, New Hampshire, and some dual purpose breeds that are slower growing.  For geese, Emden and Toulouse, Toulouse being more of a heritage breed.  Ducks, Aylesbury from England, Muscovy, and some Pekin.   And then the French Guinea fowl.

I love all those names.

Yes, all of those names have so many stories behind them.

OK, so here’s the tricky question. Chris Smaje of Small Farm Future has a litmus test that I like – he asks what would happen if you had to reduce your (fossil fuel) energy  inputs by 90%?  Would your farm still be viable? What would you do to adapt? 

I think about this quite a lot, actually. The hardest thing would be the electric fence.  Everything is electric.  So we’d have to use barbed wire or we’d have to set up some solar panels to power the electric fence.  The other big thing would be water.  Right now we pump water from a well on the farm, so we’d probably have to figure out how to do a gravity-fed system from the pond.

The other thing would be winter.  The problem is not so much warmth because as long as the cattle can get out of the wind they’re fine.  They stay out all year.  But having feed for the animals through the winter.  We’d have to harvest the hay the old-school way, by hand.  Or we could stockpile the grass, just let it stand in the field.  We’d have to cut our numbers in half, probably,  Same for the pigs.

We’d still have a successful farm though.  Less animals and we’d need to pay more attention to them. There would need to be more people involved.  Like we’d have to have someone shepherding, moving the animals around more.  Certain breeds would do better in that kind of situation.  You’d have to weed out the genetic types that would not do well without grain.

The best meat I’ve ever had was two Berkshire sows that were four years old and they were just perfectly fine on a patch of grass for most of the year, pigs outdoors can do fine but they have to be the right type.  I have one friend that I buy Berkshires from and what he looks for are the old types, just a basic pig like you would see in a picture from the 1950’s.  I have another friend that also breeds Berkshires but they are muscled up like a Duroc.  They look good but the old type pig will do a lot better roughing it.  Same with chickens.  With less power, you’d have to be more selective with your genetics.

I guess I aways look at my farm in terms of everything having multiple uses.  All the barns could be used to house something else; they aren’t specialized structures.  We can move the animals and the structures, just like on Joel Salatin’s farm. He would say be portable. Compared to a big dairy or hog operation we are already very versatile with low inputs.

3 Replies to “Life All Around: The Joys and Challenges of Small Farming with Bill Parke & Blackview Farm”

  1. Michelle,
    Thank you for taking the time to write this story. It’s nice to hear what is happening with small farmers. I miss the days growing up in a community of small farmers.
    I might offer a couple of suggestions for Bill regarding fencing and water. The best natural fences would be brambles. If you want to plant a hedgerow of brambles put up a series of posts with a wire stretched between. Birds perch on the wire and leave behind their manure seed package that rapidly grow into bushes. Black berries, raspberries, and other canes with thorns are inexpensive and provide another source of food. The bushes can be cut back and the branches used to weave wattle fences, or pushed down and layered to create even thicker growth. It takes a bit of time and know how but there are YouTube videos showing how this can be done. The fences or hedgerows also provide habitat for wildlife. They are long lasting and require little attention, yet work surprisingly well to keep most livestock contained.
    Bill should also look into a windmill for pumping water. They are now available again.

  2. Very interesting interview.

    I will think about all of this the next time I meet a nicely marbled ribeye!

  3. Great story, I visited Joel’s Polyface Farm in 1992; blew my mind! I got it; and have carried that experience with me since. I did a pastured poultry project on a sustainable agriculture grant. The acceptance of the end product was over whelming once people got past buying chicken from a human instead of a store. There are so many variations that can be put together you just need to see it in your minds eye. We ran grass finished cattle and sheep to follow the chickens. Kikuyu grass initially had a 6% protien value and thirty days after the chickens moved through the value jumped to 18%! Quite amazing for Kikuyu.
    Thank you for this story makes ones juices start following!

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