Surviving the pandemic on a small beef farm

When COVID-19 struck, the Tait family pivoted their retail strategy, and some of those adaptions will serve them in the long-term

Bouncing back and thriving from a pandemic-caused blow to the business taught Maryjo and Rob Tait of Celtic Ridge Farms a number of valuable lessons.

“We’re very much supported by our local people, which is awesome,” says Maryjo. “And with the online business, our reach is much wider.”

The Taits have a 100-head mixed herd of beef cattle — predominantly Limousin — on their 300-acre farm near Dutton, deep in the heart of southwestern Ontario. Celtic Ridge Farms is certified with the Verified Beef Production Plus (VBP+) program, with calves born on pasture, and fed right through to slaughter.

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They also have a retail store on their property and an online store, which was their saviour when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Fallout from the pandemic

“During the second week of March, people on our Facebook page started saying they couldn’t find any meat,” she says.

By the weekend, nearly everything was closed due to the lockdown from the pandemic. With nearly 80 per cent of their business coming from restaurants and retail, the Taits had to act quickly to figure out a B plan, so they could cover the bills at the end of the month.

The steady stream of orders from restaurants such as Tall Tales Café in Wallacetown and Tasty Sweets Café and Bakery in West Lorne formed the base of their income — and they dried up almost overnight.

“They all closed and initially we tried to keep the online sales smaller because we didn’t know if and when the restaurants would open up again,” Rob says.

Pre-pandemic, their online sales orders were few and far between. But during the initial stages of the pandemic, a spike in demand from people wanting to fill their freezers put the couple in a bit of a bind.

“We had people going online who were wanting 300 pounds of meat for themselves,” Maryjo says.

So they sorted out a contactless delivery service that provided packages of pasture-raised beef with assorted cuts. On delivery day, they would text the customer from 15 minutes away, telling them they were putting their order outside the door.

“We could deliver to 20 or 30 people in a few hours whereas at the store, we’d get two or three people in eight hours,” she says, adding that there’s a $50 minimum order for free delivery.

Over the next couple of months, almost all of their business came from individual consumers.

Busy farmers

Rob and Maryjo aren’t just farmers and beef retailers. They both have full-time jobs — Rob teaches history at West Elgin Secondary School and Maryjo works as an agricultural environmental officer for the Ontario Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks. They also have two small children — Alexander and Emily.

“One nice thing about COVID is that it’s given us more family time,” says Maryjo. Both parents worked from home and the kids help with sorting meat packages. Everybody pitched in with chores.

Rob says they have found the online orders a more efficient way of doing business. Their cash flow is more predictable because orders are paid for up front.

The Taits were also selling into the Cultivate Virtual Farmers’ Market, run by volunteer youth out of a teen centre in St. Thomas, Ont. Between 30 and 40 farmers are involved in the market, supplying everything from beef to turkey to cheese and more.

Maryjo points out that they’ve expanded their reach from the immediate area in Elgin County to residents in Windsor, Sarnia, Elora, St. Thomas and London.

When they get requests from farther afield, they try to recommend farmers who are in the customer’s more immediate area. For example, in eastern Ontario they recommend Enright Cattle Company.

The Taits are big believers in learning from others who are in the same business.

“When you have your own little supply chain there’s lots to learn,” says Maryjo.

While they had been selling quarters and halves of beef previously, they started focusing on the retail side of things in 2013 by putting together packages and ramping up their marketing. Having been in business in this way for seven years helped when COVID-19 hit.

Both are active on social media and Maryjo has participated in a number of webinars and online panels, including one called “Building Resiliency in the Beef Sector” which was organized by Canadian Cattlemen magazine and the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association at the Ag in Motion conference on July 23. Readers can find that panel discussion online here.

Outlook is positive

As of midsummer, restaurants were starting to open again and the Taits were looking to the future, working through how they would juggle getting back into that supply chain while continuing the online business. They were also deciding whether they would reopen their brick-and-mortar on-farm store.

“Over the years, we’ve always been able to get things to work out,” Maryjo says. “I think we’re going to be okay.”

They’re also looking to gradually expand their herd.

“We’re always looking to expand, but with the financials we can’t go quite as quick as we would like to,” says Rob. A dream is to band together with other local producers and help find processing facilities for all their cattle.

In fact, during the pandemic, they were able to help out a couple of neighbours get their cattle to slaughter. They’d like to expand that idea with a West Elgin County brand.

They’re also into agri-tourism, and have hosted visitors to their farm during agricultural education days. They hosted the Elgin County Beef farmers for a dinner and party at which everyone brought their families and toured the farm. Before the pandemic, they also had plans to put in a sunflower maze but had to put that idea on hiatus.

Rob and Maryjo are keen “agvocates” and are passionate about showing others how they farm, while building connections with other families, neighbours and customers.

Another lesson they’ve learned is how to “unplug” for a while to reconnect with each other and their kids.

“We need to take breaks — like not taking messages for a day,” says Maryjo. “Otherwise, we would get burnt out.”

An interesting side effect of the pandemic is that, previously, the Taits would get questions from consumers such as whether they injected cattle or whether they fed them GMO corn, but not after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“The only thing they want to know is how much meat they can get and the price,” Rob says.

While they’ve made a lot of sales via social media and their website, word of mouth has also been a big booster.

“Someone who lives in St. Thomas will have a dad who lives in London, so they’ll recommend our beef,” Maryjo says.

“Honesty, integrity, offering a high-quality product from a small family farm that’s local — that’s what people are looking for,” says Rob. “We need the big guys with the feedlots, but we also need the smaller businesses like ours.”

Lois Harris is an experienced Ontario freelance writer and editor working in the agriculture and food industry.

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Lois Harris is an experienced Ontario freelance writer and editor working in the agriculture and food industry.

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