Building farm from ground up
Sandra, Leo Vos named Farm Family of Year
Almost 20 years ago, Sandra Vos decided to ditch a career in nursing to farm a parcel of land in Brantford.
“I like to garden so I started to grow hay,” she recalls. “I didn’t know anything about farming. I didn’t know how to drive a tractor and I was scared of cows.”
Despite that inauspicious start, Sandra and husband Leo are set to be honoured as Brant County Federation of Agriculture Farm Family of the Year at a banquet next month.
Sandra grew up in Scarborough, and during down time would visit her uncle’s farm on Powerline Road. She went on to meet Leo (a Woodstock native) at Western University and the two moved to town in the early 1980s.
In 2001, Sandra purchased a chunk of her family’s land (80 acres) and transitioned into the world of agriculture.
“When you’re a brand new farmer, you have no knowledge, no equipment and no land behind you,” she said. “I was careful with what I could afford to do - I moved into small square hay.
“We had three kids that were just moving into being teenagers so they weren’t too impressed with the change mom was making. The next summer they all went off to camp and never came home.”
Leo would help whenever he was needed but for the most part, Sandra tackled the day-to-day duties. As the years passed she decided the land would benefit from having cows on site. She learned about rotational grazing and began consistently moving the small herd where the cattle could eat fresh grass while providing fertilizer with their manure.
Vos began with five cows and now houses upwards of 30 in the winter and nearly double that in the summer.
“That was a really steep learning curve because if you don’t have the right type of forages and sweetness in the grass you can have some pretty stringy tasting beef,” Vos explained.
“I’m a great believer in soil conservation and the best way to do that is to keep everything green.”
Her nursing background comes in handy during calf season in March and April – the herd welcomed 25 last year alone. Vos provides the vaccinations and even weens the young ones so they’re not stressed when sold to buyers.
“A whole part of my farming is health promotion,” Vos said. “I’ve always believed – rightly or wrongly – that good health starts with good food and good food starts with good soil.”
When she wasn’t at the farm, Vos became heavily involved with the Brant County Federation of Agriculture and its Buy Local Buy Fresh initiative as well as the Brantford Chamber of Commerce and Brantford Cattlemen’s Association.
“I don’t have an agricultural background but suddenly people were asking me things. They wanted me to come and talk and I found my role was that bridge between the non-farmer and the farming community,” Vos said.
“The (second and third generation farmers) are absolutely amazing – they can produce, they take risks. It’s unbelievable what farmers do every day, but they don’t always have that time to go out and educate the public. I think that’s become part of my role.”
The Vos family has welcomed hundreds of folks to the land while helping organize farm tours with former Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne stopping by one afternoon.
Their calves have become so popular that Sandra Vos often sells directly to customers, people who trust in the high-quality animals they’re receiving.
“It’s all about trying to make that next step easier for the guy down the chain,” said Vos.
Make no mistake though, things didn’t always come easy on the farm.
“In the summer when you’re doing baling, it’s hot and hard work,” said Leo.
“(And) the equipment is definitely old enough to vote.”
The past 18 years have been a learning experience for the couple, to say the least.
“We’re both city people but after being in it for a while, you really appreciate how dependent (generational farmers) are on the weather, on prices – there’s so many things out of your control you have to deal with,” Leo said. “The people we’ve met in the farming community are amazing – they’re just wonderful.”
In 2018, Sandra was presented with the Environmental Stewardship Award by the Beef Farmers of Ontario. Next month, she’ll take home another prestigious honour.
“People say to me, ‘Did you always have a dream to be a farmer?’ and I say ‘No,’” Sandra laughed.
“Some days in the mud in the spring is the absolute worst, I hate it. That’s when I think about quitting, but I look at life in a way that you never stop learning. Every day I learn something new ... Also, farming gives you a deep sense of contentment that you can’t explain to people who aren’t farmers.”
These days Sandra is thinking of ways she can slowly pass along the farm duties to others, but she’ll carry the lessons she’s learned wherever she goes. Chief among them is the need to support local.
“We really believe in the concept of, if you’re going to build a strong community, you have to give back to the community you’re making your money in,” she said. “You have to build those connections because the better connected we are, the stronger we are.”
Also being honoured at next month’s banquet are scholarship students Serena Allardyce and Suzanne Kelley.
The event takes place at Blessed Sacrament Hall in Burford on Feb. 2. The social hour begins at 6 p.m. with dinner served at 7 p.m. Tickets are $35 per person. Anyone wanting to purchase a ticket can call Linda Snyder at 519-759-4232.
Brantford's Leo and Sandra Vos have been named the Brant County Federation of Agriculture Farm Family of the Year.