Checking in on the neighbourhood farm
The divide between rural and urban is shrinking
If you live in or near Toronto, local food hardly gets more authentic than the beef that, for more than a century, has been produced by the Sheard family at Sunnymead Farms.
But can Bill, Sheila and son Will — as well as hundreds of other farmers like them on Toronto’s fringe — keep growing local crops and raising livestock with mounting pressure from housing and industry?
Absolutely, says Will, a recent graduate from the University of Guelph agricultural business program. And he believes his neighbours far and wide support him. “I’m committed to farming here,” he says. “This is my home, my community. I definitely want to stay put and continue our family tradition of being an Ontario beef farmer.”
The Sheards raise some 3,500 cattle and grow 1,400 acres of soybeans, corn, wheat and alfalfa at Sunnymead, just north of the Brampton city limits. On a recent media visit, I found their farm surprisingly serene, even though Highway 410 goes by their front gate, and their feedlot was full of cattle.
Even in the farm’s infancy, when they were truly rural, they had a close connection to Toronto. And they’ve worked hard to be good neighbours. For example, when Bill’s father William was young, in the 1940s, he was the point man (or boy, rather) on morning cattle drives from the farm, down Eglinton Avenue to the Toronto stockyards.
His job was human and animal safety, sometimes even at his own peril. He’d pedal in front of the herd, waving cars off to the side of the street to avoid collisions with the driven livestock.
Of course, times have changed. But decades later, the family continues to employ farming techniques that satisfy their neighbours, their herd, their banker, urban consumers and citizen watchdogs.
That’s a balancing act. But they do it with grace, using new and different approaches they’ve learned through research.
For example, for animal health and welfare, they change the shavings in their feedlot at least twice a week, or more if it rains. “If the animals’ feet are dry, their health is generally better,” says Will.
Environmentally, they have eavestroughs on all their barns to catch rainwater. It’s then channeled underground and filtered through a 100-metre vegetative strip. By the time it reaches the nearby Credit River, it exceeds minimum provincial standards.
They also use sophisticated, highly calibrated variable-application machinery and soil maps to spread manure. That way, the amount distributed is precise, and spread only where needed.
To promote transparency, they welcome visitors, such as those who’ll tour the farm this week as part of the annual Peel County Rural Water Quality Program.
And, the Sheards grow an acre of sweet corn just for their neighbours. They invite them to pick it for free, and while they’re at it, stop by for a look at their operation.
Sunnymead and its nearurban neighbours need to get along, just like all neighbours do. And, if indeed consumers want local food, support for sustainable farms like the Sheards is vital. Owen Roberts is an agricultural journalist at the University of Guelph, and president of the 5,000-member International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. Follow him on Twitter @ TheUrbanCowboy or contact him by email at email@example.com.
will Sheard a recent graduate from the University of guelph agricultural business program, believes his neighbours support his family’s farm, Sunnymead Farms.