B.C. producer narrows in on what customers want in beef

Health, environment and animal welfare top priorities for Edgar Smith’s customers on Vancouver Island and in the lower mainland

Edgar Smith and his brothers Phillip and Doug have a unique cattle operation, raising beef from start to finish and selling direct to customers.

“Our family has been in the beef business since the 1940s on Vancouver Island, and the operation has evolved and changed over the decades. In the 1940s and 1950s we were a grass-based pasture beef operation and sold our product to Central Auction Clearing in the lower mainland in British Columbia. There was no local market on the island, so we exported everything to the mainland,” says Smith of Beaver Meadow Farms.

In the 1960s, the Smiths started a dairy herd along with their beef business. The dairy herd expanded until the late 1990s.

“Our beef operation during those years consisted of steers from the dairy herd — crossed with a beef breed. Those steers mostly went to slaughter plants in Washington State for the hamburger chain market,” he says.

In the late 1990s they decided to retire from dairy farming and just maintain the beef production. They switched to breeds that were suited to 100 per cent grass-feeding and finishing on Vancouver Island. For the last 20 years, they’ve sold to local retail, restaurants, individual customers and through farmers markets. About 90 per cent of their sales are through direct-marketing off the farm to those various customers. They have branded their meat Natural Pastures Beef.

“Over the years we went from regular beef production to being certified organic and SPCA-certified, and salmon-safe certified. As we became more specific with our grass-finished beef and certification, our markets became closer to Vancouver Island and the lower mainland of British Columbia. There is more local interest and much higher demand,” says Smith.

One of the few remaining abattoirs on Vancouver Island is near the Smith operation in Courtenay, B.C.

“We are able to continue to harvest animals here, and with our cow-calf operation we take them clear through to finished beef. We can get the animals slaughtered and our product shipped direct to the customer,” he says.

The Smiths manage 500 acres of irrigated grassland near Courtenay, which is on the east coast of Vancouver Island. photo: Supplied by Edgar Smith

Everything worked well until the spring of this year when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the foodservice industry. “About 90 per cent of our restaurant business disappeared and hasn’t come back. Out of all the restaurants, only two have reopened, but the amount of beef they are taking is much less than they took previously. Local demand from individual customers increased, however, and so did sales at the local farmers market,” he says. People had trouble getting beef at grocery stores, and were looking for other sources.

“Fortunately, we’re not tied to commodity processing or markets. We use a small family-run abattoir with an exceptionally good food-safe record. They were able to operate through all of this, which shows the benefit of having local processing facilities.”

Smith says their overall sales have increased this year to the point that he can’t currently meet the demand.

Matching production to customer demand

“We have about 500 acres of grassland that is irrigated. We harvest about 400 animals per year. If we had more room and space, and animals, we could probably sell more beef,” says Smith.

Today they have Red Angus and various Red Angus-crosses. “We have used other breeds but right now the size of cut, and being able to finish under grass production for our customers, the Red Angus seems ideal for grazing through the wet winter and dry summers.”

Smith says they’re a relatively small-framed breed that finishes very well on grass and can graze through winter. “They also do well in hot summers — much better than black cattle.”

Their cattle never receive any grain. They have selected animals that do well on grass alone over the last 50 years. “There are many bloodlines we don’t select, because they are usually too big or too heavy and take too long to fatten on grass.”

Smith says that consumer preferences are changing these days. He describes his customers as health conscious and interested in grass-fed beef because of its conjugated linoleic acids and ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids.

“They don’t want an overly fat carcass but do want some cover and marbling.”

Customers are also environmentally conscious and concerned about the effects that cattle can have on the environment. Salmon are part of a “way of life here on the West Coast,” Smith says, and customers are interested in producers who are environmentally aware.

“That’s one reason our beef is certified salmon-safe. All the salmon streams on our farm are protected; cattle never enter the streams.”

Animal welfare and how animals are treated has also become important. “We are SPCA-certified and this draws the attention of many people who had given up red meat. They are now willing to buy it, after they understand that our animals are treated well — and that the meat is very healthy in a grass-fed, natural production system,” says Smith.

Cattle on pasture in November. The Smiths finish about 400 animals each year, and could likely sell more beef if they had room and space. photo: Supplied by Edgar Smith

While maximum production, whether in cattle or crops, is often the focus, Smith describes their operation as more of a regenerative style of farming. “We don’t use commercial fertilizer and the cattle do 90 per cent of the work.”

The cattle improve the soils and forage production by adding manure and litter, to increase organic matter in the soil. Their perennial grasslands sequester carbon as well.

“In the last few years I’ve noticed that consumers are becoming aware that grazing cattle on grasslands is a way of improving the environment.”

The demand for good grass-fed beef is more than the Smiths can supply, so they buy weaned calves from a few other ranchers who are also organic and SPCA-certified. One of those ranchers is Charlie Lasser, featured in the May 2020 issue of Canadian Cattlemen.

“He and I have also been working on a project, doing research here at my place feeding red algae seaweed to the cattle. We are in a two-year trial with Dr. John Church at Thompson Rivers University, doing tests here with our cattle.” One group was being fed the seaweed and the other group were not, for the past two years.

Preliminary information shows different types and amounts of bacteria in cattle that have been fed seaweed versus those that haven’t. The animals gain more weight when fed the red algae seaweed.

“It improves feed efficiency, and the levels of organic acids like the CLA, omega-3, omega-6, etc.… are higher as well. We may have some information on this in a few months,” he says.

The future of beef production

Smith and his brothers are in their 60s and 70s, leading to questions about their operation’s future.

“Our family is like many other farm and ranch families. We are the third generation, and the fourth generation doesn’t want to carry on the operation. So the biggest challenge is to figure out who will do it.”

Smith doesn’t see many people interested in buying farms or ranches in B.C. these days. Most of the farms on the island are slowly disappearing. Smith thinks the main reason for the lack of interest in farming is that there isn’t a good livelihood in it.

“If this product we are producing is worth something, and people like it and want it — how will it continue to be produced in the future?”

Smith also thinks people undervalue food and take it for granted. “The COVID situation illustrated how little we can produce and supply locally, and some of the supply chains are broken. Yet I didn’t see anyone offering to pay another 50 cents per pound for our beef.”

Unfortunately, Smith doesn’t think the future is very promising for beef production in his area. “A person wouldn’t be able to buy this property to produce beef, and pay for it in their lifetime. If our generation will be ending our life’s work, who will carry it on?”

Vancouver Island has one of the highest costs of production in Canada for farming or beef ranching. “I love my lifestyle, as do many others of my generation, but I don’t see others showing up who would want to do what I do.”

Some people would be interested if there was a way to make a living at it, he says. Smith sees a need to connect would-be farmers and ranchers with land, but there’s no easy solution.

“If we can’t get the people who can do the work to stay there and do it, it’s a dilemma. A person can’t come from the city and learn how to do this in a short time,” he says.

Some people might find innovative ways to make it work, like Smith has done by connecting with other producers or farmers in the Interior.

“They can do the cow-calf part more efficiently than I can here, where raising cattle is very expensive. But I can finish cattle close to the market, and get beef to consumers, so it’s a good combination. If people can work out some of these relationships, they might make it work. People who are far away from the market, if they can team up with somebody like me who is closer, we both benefit, and the consumer benefits as well.”

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