We’re putting the spotlight on Canadian farmer bloggers. Each month, we’ll feature a different farmer blogger to uncover a bit about life behind the blog, on their family farm.
Here’s what Jess had to say about blogging and her family’s farm in our Q and A.
RealDirt: When and why did you start blogging?
Jess: I began blogging in October 2014. A writer by nature and at heart, I had wanted to start a blog for a long time to foster my writing and create a consistent space to hone my craft. I spent months thinking of the perfect name, the perfect topics to blog about, etc. – basically, a lot of time thinking and planning and no time actually blogging! Then one day, I just jumped in. I took the time to create my blog and set it up the way I wanted so I could start writing again – and I haven’t stopped since.
RealDirt: Tell us briefly about your farm.
Jess: My husband Andrew and I are proud third generation dairy farmers. We have been farming full time since 2012 with my mother and father-in-law at Bellson Farms, just outside Strathroy, Ontario. We milk 50 Holstein cows twice daily in a newly renovated tie stall barn, and farm about 450 acres of oats, wheat, corn, hay and soybeans. Most of that turns into feed for the cows but a small portion gets sold as cash crop.
RealDirt: What brought you into farming?
Jess: Andrew and I began farming full time in 2012. Before then, we had been living in Wingham and then in London, Ontario, working full time – me in Human Resources and Andrew in marketing and communications. Andrew was born and raised on the farm but had initially pursued a career in radio (which is where we met). But after Andrew and I had been working and doing our own thing for a couple of years, we started considering the possibility of moving back to his home to farm. We had been helping out on weekends now and again, and it was just really great to get out of the city, be around the family and the cows, etc. Now, I should tell you that I am not a born-and-raised farm girl. I lived in the country as a kid and was in the local 4-H horse club but I didn’t grow up on a large scale farming operation like my husband did. So when we started talking seriously about moving back to the farm, I was excited – and more than a bit nervous. I had no idea what it took to be a farmer and, to be honest, wasn’t sure I could do it! But I trusted in what I knew and in my husband and his family, and in the fall of 2009, we moved back to the farm and began the process of succession planning. We’ve since created a strong partnership, one that benefits and supports the farm and our families.
RealDirt: Who do you farm with and what is everyone’s role?
Jess: As I mentioned, Andrew and I farm with my mother and father-in-law, Phyllis and Wayne Campbell. They started Bellson Farms back when Andrew was just a baby, having purchased the farm from Phyllis’ parents, Alex and Reta Johnson. We live in the same house that both my husband and my mother-in-law grew up in!
Bellson Farms consists of 450 acres across three different farms. A year and a half ago, Andrew, myself (very pregnant with our second child) and our daughter Isabella moved from the dry cow and heifer farm to the main farm where our dairy barn and cows are located, and where Wayne and Phyllis had lived for almost 30 years. This was a very big deal, switching houses – it’s not often that you have to move two families into the opposite house, in one day, for each to have a place to sleep at the end of it all! Moving day was a little wild but, with many helping hands of family and friends, it went better than we could have expected.
Since moving to the main farm, we have undergone a major barn renovation and addition. We added a new tie stall barn onto the existing barn (which is over 100 years old) that is 180 feet long. Where we had room for only 30 cows before, we now have room for 60 cows, and are currently milking about 50.
Andrew gets up every morning at 4:30 a.m. to start chores. This includes feeding and milking cows plus feeding calves, and takes about four hours to complete from start to finish. Wayne and Phyllis come from their farm to ours each morning to help with chores; but first, they do their own chores, which involve feeding dry cows and heifers.
Wayne and Andrew run our cow program and are responsible for breeding, vet care, foot care, nutrition, milking, etc. As well, they do much of the field work – cultivating, planting, harvesting, etc. With this, they also get help from Phyllis and from Grampa Johnson. Grampa, who is Phyllis’ father, is 85 years young and farms with us three days a week doing things like spreading manure, bedding cows or working ground. Phyllis is responsible for our calf program and is in charge of the feeding and nutrition of our calves as well as breeding and genetics. Phyllis also does the farm’s books with help from our chartered accountants.
I help out anywhere I can. I don’t have daily responsibilities in the barn because of my daily responsibilities in the house (cooking, cleaning, etc.), and of course, caring for and raising our two children. Isabella is three and Cash is one, and as any mother knows, that’s a full time job in itself! Often, the kids and I will go out to the barn during evening chores so I can help with small, quick items that need to be done and the kids can help Gramma, Grampa or Daddy with their chores. For example, it’s Bella’s job to feed the barn cats and so that’s the first thing she does when she gets to the barn. Cash is still pretty new to walking and so toddles along with me or one of the other adults, “overseeing” the work being done.
RealDirt: What do you love most about farming? What has been the most challenging part of farming for you?
Jess: Farming is hard work. That may seem obvious to some but until you are actually farming, it’s difficult to understand what that really means. Our cows have to be milked twice a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year. Our calves, heifers and dry cows must be fed and tended to as well, each and every day. That’s a big commitment, and we definitely have to plan our lives around it. But I love that. I love having that commitment and that schedule to guide us every day. I love the rhythm and the structure that exists when milking cows.
What I love the most about farming, though, is that it teaches great lessons. Responsibility. Respect. Time management. Humility. Hard work. Commitment. Trust. Whether you’re working land as a cash crop farmer, raising beef, pork, chicken or eggs, milking cows or goats or something else in between – farming will teach you these lessons whether you want to learn them or not. But you become a better farmer, and a better person, because of them.
RealDirt: What has been the most challenging part of farming for you?
Jess: The biggest challenge for me, personally, is feeling like a contributing member of the farm. As I mentioned, I don’t have daily responsibilities in the barn because I am the caretaker for our two young children. And while I truly cherish my time with the kids, I sometimes feel badly that I can’t help out more. I’m sure other farm moms will understand this feeling!
The biggest challenge for us as a farm business varies depending on the time of year, really. During planting and harvest, the challenge is weather. Other times, the challenge is quota and whether we were able to purchase any that month or not (this is important given that we are still in a growth stage and want to milk more cows). It was quite a challenging time during the barn renovations but now, the cows love the barn and are very comfortable there, as are we.
RealDirt: When you’re not farming and blogging, how do you like to spend your time?
Jess: When I’m not farming or blogging, I’m either writing or running. I am a freelance writer and have written all types of pieces geared to many different industries (i.e. fitness, business, technology, music). The other part of my blog, Run, Farm Girl! Run, is to speak to my experiences as a runner. I have been running on and off for over 10 years, and I really do love it. So I run as much as I can, given our chores and family schedules, and write about the both the challenges and miracles of running and being a runner.
I also love to bake (I have award-winning bread, cookie, brownie and lemon bar recipes to my name), get lost in a great book (I’m a member of my library’s book club), or keep up with the Kardashians on the PVR (yes, it’s my guilty pleasure, I’ll admit it!).
RealDirt: What is one message you’d like to share about what you do?
Jess: My blog is still fairly new and so to keep it consistent, I’ve developed a weekly feature post that I call Farm Fridays. Every Friday, I blog about something to do with our farm or with agriculture in general. I’ve covered topics ranging from our farm dog, Winnie, to how Monsanto and sunshine is essentially the same thing. The overall message that I try to include in every Farm Friday post, however, is for the consumer to educate themselves about both sides of the farming/ag story before making a decision about what they think they know. There is SO much inaccurate, sensationalized misinformation out there, all geared towards scaring consumers into boycotting this or only buying that. It can be difficult for consumers to sift through all of that and find solid, science-based, factual information about where their food comes from and what’s in it. So I encourage people to ask questions and make as informed a decision as possible, no matter whether that decision is to go vegan or drink milk or not eat hot dogs. Knowledge is power, as they say, and that’s no different when it comes to knowing about your food and where it comes from.
RealDirt: What advice would you give to anyone interested in getting into farming?
Jess: To new farmers, I would encourage them to be the kind of farmer who consumers can ask question of and learn good lessons from. Consumers care about their food, the treatment of animals and how their food is grown so it is imperative for farmers to be ready, willing and able to answer questions about those things.