It may not be quite as simple as “build it and they will come,” but Dana and Adam Thatcher, Ontario’s Outstanding Farmers, have found if you produce high-quality and healthy meat products customers will find you.
The Thatchers, who converted their one-time Western Ontario hog operation into a diversified livestock enterprise complimented with an on-farm meat retail outlet, say the business has steadily grown over the past six years partly because of quality and partly because consumers like buying directly from a producer.
“Our farm is out in the country, we’re not on a major highway, but people come from all over,” says Dana who, along with husband Adam, operates Thatchers’ Farms at Rockwood, near Guelph.
As their website says, “Our products are all raised on our farm, in Eramosa Township. Our meat products are completely free of hormones and additives. We believe that our products are a healthy choice for your family. Buying locally here at our farm allows our customers to experience exactly how their food is grown.
“It has been really rewarding just to see how the business has grown,” says Thatcher. “We started out with a small 200 square foot shop attached to the house and now we have a 2,000 square foot country store, butcher shop and bakery.” They are drawing regular customers from Guelph and nearby communities. Many drive an hour from Toronto and Mississauga.
While Adam’s family had farming connections, he and Dana are first generation owners of Thatchers’ Farms. They were in the hog business for a while, but with “hog prices going down, and feed costs going up,” Dana says they decided to make a change in 2007.
“We got rid of the hogs and decided to raise sheep, produce lambs and sell meat,” she says. They started small, added other classes of livestock on their 440 acre operation, contracted a butcher to work on a part time basis and sales and the business grew.
Today they have about 600 head of sheep, including 250 head of ewes. They also raise beef, hogs, chickens and turkeys. Adam lost a workshop when the country store moved into the 2,000 square foot building in the yard which today houses the store, a butcher shop with a full time butcher and a bakery. Along with a full range of fresh and deli meat products they also carry milk, cheese, yogurt, honey, eggs and related grocery items. Along with the farm store they also operate a stand at the weekly Guelph farmer’s market.
“I don’t know if there was one particular change, but as the business started to grow we realized it wasn’t just the two of us anymore,” says Thatcher. “We had full and part time employees and our whole focus centered around moving our entire farm production through the country store.”
Year round production
The sheep lamb three times a year, and they have year round processing of all types of livestock. They truck animals to a local abattoir for processing; carcasses are delivered back to the butcher shop where the farm butcher cuts and wraps meat all week.
Adam focuses on the production side of the operation, while Dana manages the store.
“Probably the biggest learning curve we had was learning how to manage the farm business and our personal life,” says Thatcher. “I am a school teacher who quit my job five years ago to work on the farm. And I am not a farmer. I had to learn that dinner isn’t always served at 5 p.m. and silage and hay happens when it needs to. We also have three young children so it was about learning to manage all that was happening on the farm, but also having time to raise the family.” Their family includes Sophie, five, William, four, and Thomas, two.
Thatchers’ Farm and country store appears to be well established; Dana says they are looking at the next phase of development. “We definitely need to be looking ahead about where we go from here,” she says. Agritourism is one logical step being considered.
“We would like to incorporate an education component into the farm business,” she says. “We would like to get involved in school tours at the farm. I would like to someday see a barn or some facility setup as a demonstration classroom.
“One of the things that is really cool about farming and having a country store is that you get to put a face to the consumer who buys your products,” she says. “We feel it is important to make that connection.” †
THE OTHER NOMINEES, 2013
British Columbia: Troy and Sara Harker
Alberta: Michael Kalisvaart and Karen Jansen
Saskatchewan: Chad and Darlene Krikau
Manitoba: Tyler and Dorelle Fulton
Quebec: Luc Gervais and Kim Brunelle
Atlantic Canada: James and Amanda Kinsman, Nova Scotia