Kristy Sivorot does not shy away from hard work. She’s a nurse, a mother of two, a homeschool teacher for the last year, and a livestock farmer on the Sooke and Metchosin border.
She didn’t grow up on a farm. She never had to collect eggs before school or milk a cow that kicked her if she did it wrong. But a few years ago, Sivorot, 41, became uncomfortable with how large beef operations treated their cattle.
“I wasn’t willing to stop eating meat, so I figured I’d better raise my own,” she said, standing on her three-hectare farm in Sooke, covered in hillocks, sunny patches between trees.
Sivorot and her husband bought the property when it came up for sale, though it’s not ideal for farming. Not a lot of the South Island is, mainly being rock and clay. But Sivorot is determined. She started with chickens and a dairy cow and now raises meat cows, pigs, goats and turkeys on rotation. It hasn’t been an easy venture.
Going from city girl to cattle farmer is not something one can do alone. Sivorot learned to lean heavily on the community of farmers around her and discovered many are young women. Like Amber Rowse-Robinson, a 32-year-old who has been raising animals in Sooke for more than a decade.
Rowse-Robinson didn’t grow up in a farm family either. She knew she loved animals but had no idea how enamoured with cows she’d become, specifically the critically endangered Irish Kerry dairy breed. She’s one of few people in the world breeding Kerrys, and keeping these heritage breeds alive has become a passion.
She also rears rare, though prosaically named, Large Black pigs. Her adorable Highland cows and Shetland sheep have both shaken off the endangered designation because enough people worldwide are raising them. Each has unique characteristics worth saving, she said. Plus, there’s the chickens, barn cats, a dog and her three-year-old daughter.
Initially, the farm was a way to feed Rowse-Robinson and her husband, who doesn’t farm with her, though he supports the venture. It started with chickens. Then she added goats and then found some sheep for sale. By the time she was pregnant with their first child, she had cattle and pigs, too – and still, she called it a hobby.
After their baby was born, she and her husband considered the high cost of childcare and decided it made more sense for Rowse-Robinson to stay home instead of going back to work.
So she dedicated herself to farming full-time and shifted the focus from raising meat and food to breeding – that is, conserving – rare heritage breeds.
“Conserving these heritage animals feels special to me because so much of what small farmers are trying to do is offer an alternative to what we see on large-scale factory farms.”
Cows on those farms are bred to have characteristics that suit a highly managed environment. They need less space and produce a high volume of milk. The breeds Rowse-Robinson is focused on are more independent. They can roam an acreage happily unsupervised, which suits small farms.
It’s easy to romanticize the life, even for her. But some days plain suck.
One day in mid-July, her sheep wandered off. Vanished. Her 10-hectare leasehold in East Sooke is untamed, crisscrossed with game trails, underbrush and hills. Rowse-Robinson spent six hours hiking around with her three-year-old toddler, who was not interested in the game.
“She was tired and hungry and didn’t want to be doing it, but I couldn’t leave the sheep,” she said. She used to strap the baby to her back while she did the farm chores, but no more.
“There are days your animals need you, and your children need you, and the balance is very different.”
Until a year ago, there was not a large animal veterinarian in Sooke. But as a nurse, Sivorot was more prepared than most when her cow went down. Having a cow go down is a big, frightening deal. It means the cow is unable to get up on its own for any number of reasons. It often ends in death.
This is where cow mentors come in.
She called up her mentor, an experienced dairy farmer, and explained the situation. He gave her advice – tube feed electrolytes, various medication, calcium. Hope.
“I sat in the forest beside her, crying all morning, praying she’d get up. It was Mother’s Day, I remember.” After 12 hours, Bessie did get up and is still healthy today.
Sivorot’s nurturing instinct also kicked in when she learned about an injured, pregnant cow at a large dairy farm. The owners would slaughter the cow for meat because the injury was more than they could manage. Sivorot could not stomach that, so she bought the cow and has been nursing her back to health.
“She got to feel the sun on her back for the first time in her life,” Sivorot said, her hand stroking Juniper’s neck. The cow nuzzled her massive head into Sivorot’s hand. On July 21, Juniper – whose leg swelling has reduced considerably – delivered a healthy bull calf who Sivorot’s six-year-old son Bjorn has named Junior.
The small farms of the South Island contribute to the food chain, but slowly and with tears. These farmers, including those who were interviewed but aren’t in this article, love their animals. They describe deep turmoil each time they take one to an abattoir for slaughter. Ultimately, they are grateful to the beast for nourishing families and taking comfort in raising them in a good environment.
They also make butter, yogurt and cheese for their own families, but food pasteurization requirements stop most small farms from selling dairy.
Selling meat from a locally raised, grass-fed, free-range, emotionally well-adjusted cow is not hard, but it is expensive.
“I’ve never had anyone challenge the prices I’ve asked, but what it costs to produce meat in a certain way means its only accessible to a certain type of people,” Rowse-Robinson said. “That bothers me. I want this to be for the community too.”
Part of that cost comes from the price of land on south Vancouver Island. It’s hard enough to find housing, never mind hectares of raw land for livestock to roam.
Especially for new farmers. Sivorot works as a nurse on the weekends to subsidize her farm. If she had more land, she’d happily add more livestock but isn’t willing to crowd them, so her three-hectare farm is tapped out at a handful of bovine and occasional goats.
Rowse-Richardson leases 40 hectares with another farmer and 10 hectares where she lives with her family.
“We’ve lived in a lot of crazy places just so we could have land,” she said.
Leasing is a great solution if you can find the right fit, but there’s no security. For now, Rowse-Richardson looks at her business as just beginning since she shifted focus to breeding over raising meat. Now, meat is a byproduct: “Extra miles end up in the food system.”
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