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Maude Roy and her husband Wendell Joyce in their farm kitchen
Maude Roy and her husband Wendell Joyce in their farm kitchen

Sunflower Farm CSA "beefs up" Ontario food banks

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Community Supported Agriculture programs, or CSAs, have become a familiar consumer choice. Growers reduce financial risk by selling shares in advance of the season's production. Share-holders get regular baskets of fresh-picked vegetables, without all the weeding and watering.

Done right, CSAs help people eat better and get to know local farmers. But the model doesn't always include meat, or help those with no money to spare.

A family farm near Oxford Mills, Ontario has established a CSA that takes those gaps into account. Shares in Sunflower Farm cover the cost of producing beef. The meat goes to feed the hungry through charitable organizations. Shareholders don't get a bite. Just a warm feeling - and a tax receipt for their donation.

Lucy Martin spoke with Wendall Joyce and his wife Maude Roy about their project - and creating links that help rural and urban dwellers alike.

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Amid the sounds of a barn full of animals, Wendell Joyce talks about trying to manage so many things. “You know, it's always a rush to get all the farm work done, plus head off – which is true for fifty percent of farmers today, basically.”

Wendell Joyce is a fifth-generation farmer. He also holds down a regular job up in Ottawa. On some days that eats up three hours of commuting time. Maude Roy handles daily chores down on the farm and juggles everything required to build up a fairly-new CSA.

Modern farming is full of outside jobs, constant innovation and weighing the merits of new ideas.

This farm family used to sell beef the usual way. But the Canadian market went haywire in 2003. Panic over “mad cow disease” sent prices plummeting. Making the best of a bad situation, they donated animals to area food banks. That was an eye-opener.

Wendell Joyce: “You think of an affluent city like Ottawa, you know? Stable economy and good salaries, lots of government jobs and so on. When you hear the amount of people that have to go to the Food Bank every month, it's quite mind-boggling.”

They came away with a new slant on food, farming and hunger.

Wendell Joyce: “We started mulling the idea of the CSA over in our minds. We thought, well, maybe there are some community-minded people who would want to join us and support our venture – and it turns out there are. A lot of the people we talk to say, 'Yeah, that's a great idea.' ”

They get negative comments too: why feed shiftless drunks? Farmers aren't responsible for solving poverty.

Maude Roy doesn't want to go there.

Maude Roy: “A lot of people are in need. And you never know, that can happen to one of us here, or anybody. You lose your job, and then you get sick. I don't know, like, I think it's more – it's a local solution for a local problem.”

Today, they farm three product lines: heifers and goats, for profit. And beef, for humanity.

Night falls early in November. The stock was already in the barn, enjoying dinner.

Wendell Joyce: “So these are the little males here, they're going to become the CSA beef, and those are the girls from the dairy herd.”

Calves share this barn with a cute herd of goats. There's high demand for goat meat from Ottawa's multi-ethnic population.

Wendell Joyce: “Their tenancy is to scavenge, to leaves...”

Maude Roy: (interrupting) “Flowers, normally! (laughs.) If they escape, you can say good bye to all your landscaping!”

Wendell Joyce: “They're a bit like little cows, but not exactly. They're smart little animals! I like them. The more I work with them the more I like them!”

OK. Goats are fun, but back to the calves.

Wendell Joyce: “We have a deal with the dairy farmer, for whom we're raising the heifers. So we're taking his males too. And they're Holstein males. So, they won't become the prime steaks. But, for our purposes, they're perfect. Lean ground beef.”

Food banks always need staples that keep. But a healthy diet goes beyond boxes and cans.

Something we discussed further, inside their cosy farm kitchen.

Wendell Joyce: “They're always chronically short of the good, wholesome, fresh – if you look at the food hampers, what you see is, you know, canned spaghetti, tomato sauce, and pasta, basically. So we can add the ground beef to make a complete meal.”

Sunflower Farm's CSA shares cover out-of-pocket costs, including slaughtering in Smiths Falls. Joyce and Roy donate their labor. The beef – fresh and frozen – ends up at the Kemptville Salvation Army or Ottawa's Shepherds of Good Hope food kitchen. Those charities issue tax receipts, which go back to the shareholders.

The idea can be a head-scratcher.

Wendell Joyce: “I mean, sometimes, our peers, our farmers, really don't understand. They would say, like: 'Why would you want to do that?' If I'm feeling a little bit, a little bit sarcastic, I would say 'Well, why do you want to produce beef and ship it down the road to Cargill for a break-even price, you know?' On average, over the years?”

It's still hard to make money in cattle. They've intentionally structure this CSA so it won't undercut their beef-producing neighbors.

Wendell Joyce: “And we're not. Because the clientele that we're serving, they don't go to go to the market to buy any beef, because they don't have any money. They're part of the need, but they're not part of the demand.”

Joyce isn't anti-trade. This CSA won't replace business as usual. There is an “ah-ha” though. This way, the same money that might have gone straight to a food bank gets a few extra cycles through the farm economy first. The donation still arrives in a food kitchen as much-appreciated meat.

Eventually, they hope to distribute one animal per week to local charities.

Wendell Joyce: “What we basically want to do is something we can feel good about, at the end of our career. Make a contribution, Keep our farm green and viable, and contribute to the local economy. Not make a ton of money, but not lose a ton of money either.”

Maude Roy: “What I would like is to have, kind of a basic of farms like us, in every province. (Wendell Joyce agreeing: “Like a network.”) Close to the big cities. So that way, you know, people can have good food.”

They're not alone. The couple says they've seen all sorts of creative initiatives linking area farms with food banks. Making “buy local” and “eat local” go even farther.


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