Think of him as The Bull Whisperer.
Stan Christensen – all 6 foot 5 of him – moves about a fenced field that holds a dozen or so Red Angus bulls, the largest among them, the “boss” of the herd, weighing in at more than 1,100 kilograms, slightly larger than a black rhinoceros, roughly the size of three adult moose. Mr. Christensen throws an arm over the shoulder of the giant known as Red Sage 142Y 678, and the big bull all but rubs against him like a barn cat. He then moves through the rest of the bulls, not a snort among them, calmly talking to them as they appear to lounge about in some impossibly bucolic painting.
The many rolling fields where Sage Farm’s 367 head of Red Angus roam seemingly at large – the seven kilometres of electric fencing mostly unseen – lie along the sloping sides of great massifs, near mountains of mixed forest and sheer rock face. The sun sets over a widening of the Gatineau River in western Quebec, a river that was dammed decades ago and drowned the quaint village of Lac-Sainte-Marie, long since relocated to higher ground along the river’s revised shoreline. “People often say to me, ‘Your cattle do pretty well,’” Mr. Christensen jokes of his animals' robust health. “I tell them: ‘It’s because of the view.’”
They do pretty well because of Mr. Christensen’s methods: the cattle are kept in open fields most of the year and in strategically sheltered pastures during winter. They are well watered and, when grazing is impossible, well fed. No hormones, no antibiotics except to treat a sick or injured animal, no cramming into stalls or small paddocks. The farm has not used herbicides or fertilizers for the past 30 years.
It is beef farming with a difference – one farm story in an occasional series in which The Globe and Mail examines the lives of Canadian farmers after the North American free-trade agreement was renegotiated.
Over the past few decades, beef farmers have faced challenges from bans on their products in major export markets and changing dietary habits, including a plan for Canada’s Food Guide to reduce its emphasis on meat, and they are now coping with a dwindling labour force in their industry.
The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association says the country produces about 1.3 million tonnes of beef a year, much of which will be exported. In 2016, exports of 360,000 tonnes were worth $2.3-billion and went to 56 countries, although the United States is, by far, Canada’s best customer. Some 75 per cent of all beef exports are shipped south of the border. China and Hong Kong, with 8 per cent, and Japan at 6 per cent are the next highest importers.
At home, Canadian consumers buy about 18 kilograms of beef a person each year, with the country’s total consumption averaging around 880,000 tonnes in recent years.
Unlike such farm commodities as milk and eggs, beef has no supply management. Rather than marketing boards, it has only the market, subject to whims and trends. There is a cow for every three humans in this country – approximately 11.5 million cattle and calves. Such numbers have, over the years, been a target for activists concerned about the methane the animals produce. “I have a hard time with people who say there should be no livestock,” Mr. Christensen says. “That’s not realistic.”
Mr. Christensen keeps a cartoon handy that takes a shot at the environmental activists. It shows a large truck on an overpass spewing clouds of black exhaust into the atmosphere while a passenger looks down on grazing cattle and says, "Look at all those cows down there farting.”
Mr. Christensen, 67, grew up in New Denmark, N.B., and came to the Lac-Sainte-Marie area to holiday at the nearby ski resort. “I came to ski,” he says, “and I stayed to farm.”
He met Cheryl Sage, a member of a pioneer family that settled here during the Irish famine of the 1840s. They married in 1975, after Mr. Christensen completed a diploma in computer-science technology at Ottawa’s Algonquin College. They have two sons, Ian, now 40, and Eric, 34. The parents and children each have a 25-per-cent share in the operation.
Sage Farm includes 850 acres at Lac-Sainte-Marie and hundreds of acres rented throughout a large sweep of the region. It was much smaller in previous incarnations. When Stan and Cheryl Christensen started out in 1980, they had only 36 cattle. That changed rapidly once they applied a “mobility” philosophy to farming.
“In Eastern North America, cows are the least mobile they are in the world,” Mr. Christensen says. “In Spain, they take them up and down the mountains according to the season. In India, somebody walks them out to graze. But here? Why do we take an animal that is absolutely mobile and anchor them somewhere so that we can bring plants that aren’t mobile at all to them? It makes no sense.”
Such thinking is not unique, but it differs from the traditional model of a large barn, adjacent pastures and little mobility for beef cattle that are mainly raised on feed. The Christensens’ large herd – which includes more than 30 heifers and nearly 70 young bulls that will be auctioned off to meat producers before reaching maturity – is pastured more than half the year with no supplemental feed at all.
The Christensens also sell breeding stock to other farmers in Quebec, Ontario and, periodically, the Maritimes. They take their own cattle to slaughter at an abattoir in Thurso, Que., with no stop at a feedlot, and sell packaged meat to loyal customers from a small retail shop on the farm. They also supply the nearby resort, golf course and a village restaurant, Le Pub McVey, where the most popular item on the menu is the “Stan Burger.”
A laptop computer is a vital tool of the operation, keeping track of the breeding, weights, height, etc. The Christensens use Google Earth to check out fields that are available for rent to see if the property suits their needs. They use ultrasound to determine the quality of meat a carcass will yield – “marbling” is currently popular with beef consumers. They use compiled genetic information to determine what traits from a bull’s line are likely to show up in the calves of cows impregnated with its semen.
Other than that, it is an operation of considerable simplicity, with few workers around and minimal machinery operating at any given time. The cattle seem remarkably at ease with their setting.
“When I first came here,” Mr. Christensen says, “you couldn’t catch a cow. People being around them spooked them. But now, it’s different. There’s rarely more than two people moving about with them and they’re pretty much on their own.
“These cows are low-stress-management cows. You just have to figure out how you and the cattle get along. Just you and the cattle and the better it goes.”
In summer, the cattle on the Christensen farm are so much on their own that they might see a human only once every week or so, when a member of the family comes to check the water supply and the mineral tub, or to move them to another paddock.
“That’s the beauty of raising cattle this way,” Mr. Christensen says. “You don’t have to babysit them all the time.”
Closed borders and health warnings
The toughest moments in the Christensens’ 40 years of raising beef cattle came after May 20, 2003, the day the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced that a Black Angus cow from Alberta had been found with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The United States immediately shut its borders to Canadian beef and cattle, and 40 countries followed suit. The federal government came up with a compensation package and, slowly, the export bans were partly lifted, but the damage had been done.
“The 20th of May, 2003,” Mr. Christensen says. “That’s as important as 9/11 for us. The day after the announcement, our herd was worth two-thirds less of the value it had been – and you couldn’t even sell them for that!”
Mr. Christensen says it took until 2014 for beef to get back to the value it was before the BSE announcement. In subsequent years, consumers have been eating less meat or using substitutes such as meatless burgers.
More than six million Canadians have restricted or eliminated meat from their diets, according to a 2018 survey conducted for Health Canada. The trend is often tied to a 2015 declaration by the World Health Organization that processed meats such as sausage and bacon are carcinogenic to humans. That the WHO said red meat was “probably” a danger as well outraged beef farmers, who say such an assertion had no scientific basis.
Even so, three-quarters of Canadians believe that, “as humans, it is natural to eat meat,” and that the consumption of meat is part of “a natural and balanced diet.” Beef is in no danger of going out of fashion.
In 2017, the cattle industry generated $8.9-billion in farm cash receipts, making cattle and calves the largest revenue-maker in agriculture. Some 60,000 farm and ranch operations derive more than half their farm income from beef.
Labour and land
According to the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, the beef industry – raising of cattle, feedlots, abattoirs, etc. – employs 40,900 people, about 11 per cent of the agricultural work force. It is estimated that the industry contributes $17.2-billion to the gross domestic product, with some 225,000 jobs directly or indirectly connected to the industry. The association says every job in beef yields another 3½ jobs elsewhere in the Canadian economy.
That being said, the greatest issue facing the beef industry is a labour shortage, with one-third of the work force, farmers as well as hired help, expected to retire over the next decade. Mr. Christensen is hardly unique in still running an operation after most in his age group are retired. While the size of farm operations has grown, the numbers who actually farm have fallen dramatically. In 1971, there were 366,110 farmers, a number that fell in the most recent census to 205,730. That’s a drop of 44 per cent.
It is not just in beef that labour concern lies. On-farm agriculture is said to have the highest job-vacancy rate, 7 per cent, of any industry. The labour gap in Canadian agriculture as a whole is 59,000, with predictions that the industry could be short some 114,000 workers in 10 years. The federal government has estimated that Canadian producers are losing $1.5-billion a year in sales simply because there are not enough farmers and hired help to meet the estimated market.
Mr. Christensen is a skeptic when it comes to the oft-heard farm-labour debate. He does not doubt for a moment that some sectors tied to agriculture are short of workers – “How many people at 17 wake up and say, ‘I want to work in an abattoir?’” – but he has his doubts about such necessity for on-farm help and the lack of future farmers.
"Everybody says, 'Where are our farmers going to come from?’ As if we needed more. Why do we need it?” he asks. “There’s lots of production. There’s lots of farms.
“This fewer-and-fewer-farmers thing. It gets talked about so much. ‘Oh my God, it’s a crisis!’ And yet if we look at total food production, it goes up and up and up.”
Mr. Christensen concedes that the cost of land can be a problem for those trying to start out in farming, but he says that the value of land is, for most farmers, their only pension plan, so no one should expect established owners to devalue their property simply to provide opportunities for later generations.
The best solution, he believes, lies in innovative farming such as is practised on Sage Farm – something many farmers do not consider. “If you do it the way they tell you at the coffee shop,” he says, “you’re going to have the same complaints they have.”
Another innovation he has chosen to follow is land rental, often a considerable distance from his Lac-Sainte-Marie base of operations. It is common for farmers to rent more land, but renting it at the distances the Christensens do is unusual. The drop in the number of farmers, even he contends, actually works to his advantage when it comes to renting land.
“If everybody was there,” he says, “I wouldn’t be doing that, would I?”
Mr. Christensen says renting farmland has been a hard concept to sell to others. “The hardest people to rent from are old farmers,” he says. “Because they did it this way. But if I did it their way, then I’d be just as cynical as they are.”
The older farmers, he believes, often get stuck in the past and are reluctant to embrace ideas with which they did not grow up. Several months ago, Mr. Christensen attended a farm meeting in the nearby town of Low where the conversation turned to the lack of new farmers. One of the older men stood up and turned to challenge Mr. Christensen.
“You’re the problem,” the older man said, “because you’re renting all the farms.”
Stan Christensen has never regretted that he came to Lac-Sainte-Marie to ski and ended up a lifetime farmer when he married into the Sage family. Farming allowed the Christensens to stay in the area and make a comfortable living. He says that it saved him, a recent graduate in computer science, from decades spent shut up in a federal government building programming computers.
Instead, he spends his days surrounded by the extraordinary beauty of Lac-Sainte-Marie and the Gatineau River, working with his family – and the only commute being from one pasture to the next.
“How do you convey that to other people?” he asks. “People ask why you farm. Well it’s not because you’ll make money or anything.
“But if you like to make decisions, if you like to get up in the morning and face new challenges, it’s a great business. Because it surely will be different tomorrow than today.
“Which is why I enjoy it immensely.”