Farming with a focus on learning

By: Matt McIntosh

2010 calendarWalt Freeman loves to learn and has no doubt that farming has been one of the most engaging educational opportunities he has ever had.

Walt and Heather – his wife of 35 years – are the owners of a Battersea-area mink farm. The farm backs up to a small lake and was built on land originally purchased by his grandfather in 1921. The couple still live in the original farmhouse, and currently produce an average of 15,000 fur pelts every year.

In 2016, Walt is the face of February and Ontario’s fur farmers in the eleventh annual Faces of Farming calendar, published by Farm & Food Care Ontario. His page is sponsored by the Canadian Mink Breeders and Ontario Fur Breeders Association.

In 1977, after a brief stint at Loyalist College for radio broadcasting and a subsequent two years in the industry, Walt returned to take a more active role on the farm with his father, Hugh and brother Will. Walt gradually bought out the shares and became the sole owner of the operation in 2010. To help things run smoothly, Walt maintains eight full-time employees as well several seasonal workers when things get really busy.

On top of the mink he raises, Walt also helps take care of 13,000 other mink by producing feed. He maintains a large food processor that allows him to create enough feed for both his animals, as well as the animals being raised on other mink farms.

“Our success in Ontario comes partially from the by-products of human food,” says Walt. “Mink are carnivorous so we use eggs, animal by-products unfit for human consumption and some grain to make feed.”

Walt explains that the availability of secondary products like low-grade grains and other food waste is very high in Ontario, meaning it is fairly easy for him to purchase. He receives the products frozen, and consequently, his farm features a 3000 square-foot walk-in freezer where the food products are stored before processing.

Using a large mixer, Walt produces approximately six tonnes of feed a day during the peak period of demand from July through November. Of course, running such equipment and facilities is rather expensive. Walt says that at a basic level, “the cost of food makes up nearly half the cost of production… the freezer and feed-mixing equipment draw a lot of electrical energy.” Regardless of costs, though, Walt says he is happy that feed production is part of his business. “I really like working with my neighbours.”

The advancement of animal husbandry and welfare has also played a central role on Walt’s farm for some time. In 2011, for instance, Walt completely overhauled his farm by introducing all-new breeding stock. This allowed him to improve the overall health of his mink, as well as the effectiveness of his breeding program.

Walt also pays close attention to animal welfare – specifically the Codes of Practice – and very much enjoys learning about the latest and best methods for raising mink. Walt says, “more than 90% of the pens currently in use on my farm meet or exceed the guidelines set in the code.” Walt also pointed out, “the Code works as a good standard for consumers too because it offers assurance that Fur farmers are very concerned about the humane treatment of animals.”

In his spare time, Walt helps support a local theatre company, and plays the organ at his church in Battersea – something which he has done for 24 years. He is also a former piper with The Rob Roy Pipe Band and Highland Dancers.

Walt says his future plans involve a modest increase in the size of the operation, and developing a succession plan so he can begin to reduce his involvement. More than anything, though, it’s the lifestyle that Walt enjoys.

“My work is in my backyard,” he says. “I don’t have to drive anywhere, I get to work with my neighbours, and be my own boss.”

The eleventh annual “Faces of Farming” calendar, published by Farm & Food Care Ontario, is designed to introduce the public to a few of Ontario’s passionate and hardworking farmers – the people who produce food in this province. Copies can be ordered online at www.farmfoodcare.org.

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