Farming, family and community are three words which sum up the 2009 Ontario Outstanding Young Farmers, Jason and Christina Pyke. The Pykes of Pykeview Meadows www.pykeviewmeadows.com,a bison and field crop operation on Wolfe Island, received the top honour at the provincial awards ceremony held in London earlier this year.
Jason and Christina Pyke, who were selected from a group of six finalists, became interested in bison, in part because of their hardiness and need for minimal care, and in part due to their lean meat quality. From the purchase of 30 animals in 1996, their herd has now grown to more than 130 with another 40 calves expected this spring. Along with the help of Jason’s father and brother, the farm also grows soybeans, wheat and corn on approximately 1,000 acres. The Pikes have recently invested in wind energy with four 2.3 megawatt turbines currently being erected on their land.
The judges selected The Pykes, in part because of their hard work they have invested in developing a market for their animals. In just five years, they have increased from selling 10 animals to selling 50 and Jason now has to buy additional yearlings just to keep up with demand. Products are sold at the Kingston and Ottawa Farmers’ Market, to health-food stores, meat shops and restaurants. Products sold include traditional cuts of meat including steaks, roasts, and burgers, but also novelty items such as pepperettes, jerky, sausages and smokies, as well as a wide range of fine leather products made from the hides.
Both Christina and Jason are heavily involved with many local and provincial organizations including the Ontario Bison Association, the Wolfe Island Early Year’s Centre, the Ottawa Rideau Regional Soil & Crop Improvement Association, and the Frontenac Environmental Farm Plan Peer Review Committee. Jason was also heavily involved with the Hay West project in 2002, when he coordinated the donation, transportation and loading of 1104 round bales of hay from Wolfe Island Farmers, to drought stricken farms in Western Canada.
With all of this going on in their lives, family remains their priority and they appreciate the opportunity farming gives them to spend quality time with their two children, Jack, 8 and Chloe, 6.
EXPANDING THEIR REACH
Increasing public exposure and accessibility to their wide range of bison products has been the biggest change in helping to build a thriving business, says Jason Pyke. Joining a regular weekly farmers market at Ottawa’s Landsdowne Park and then opening an on-farm store late this summer has significantly increased sales of fresh and frozen meat products.
“We do go to other markets, but joining the producer-only market in Ottawa in 2006 has made the biggest difference,” he says. “We probably sell about 50 per cent of our production through that one market which is only one day per week, May through October. And now with a proper year-round store on the farm, we hope to provide customers with not only our own meat and other bison products, but also plan to offer other locally produced farm products.”
The bison have a natural fit on the Wolfe Island farm, near Kingston. The bison are low-maintenance animals that do well on developed pasture on land not well suited to corn and soybean production.
The Pykes process two 18-to 30-month old bison per week at a local abattoir, with all meat from the average 500-lb. carcasses cut and wrapped into retail-sized servings. All trim is further processed into ground meat for burgers or made into pepperettes or sausage. Hides are also tanned and made into leather products such as handbags and gloves.
While Christina focuses more on the marketing end of the business, Jason focuses on production, although both enjoy the direct contact with customers.
The grass-finished bison is marketed as a premium meat product, compared to beef for example, with ground meat selling for about $6 per pound, while prime cuts such as tenderloin retail for up to $32 per pound.
“Direct sales to consumers has several benefits,” says Pyke. “For us it is good to get positive feedback from customers on how they like the product, and what type of cuts they prefer. For the customer, they like knowing where the meat is produced and being able to talk directly with the farmer about how it was raised and fed. Our bison meat appeals to consumers because it is a good healthy product, it is lean, flavourful, and raised naturally. Price isn’t as much an issue as much as they like quality and like to know where it is produced.”
The on-farm store, which they opened in late summer, will give them not only a proper facility for on-farm sales, but also provide a more professional image for the business. The new building includes about 500 square feet of retail space as well as a 30 x 35 foot shop/garage area for storing materials and loading product for delivery.
From a business perspective, the bison produce about one-third of the farm income with cash crops accounting for about two-thirds of revenue. “There is certainly potential for the bison meat business to grow, and we could probably sell more right now, but the limiting factor is having the number of animals,” says Pyke. “We have about 130 to 150 head of bison but we need to expand the herd base as sales increase.”
Another recent farm diversification involved leasing land to an Alberta-based windpower company— Canadian Hydro Developers. The company has established 86 power generating wind turbines on Wolfe Island, with Pykeview Meadows leasing land for four of the 2.3 megawatt towers.
Lee Hart is a field editor for Grainews based in Calgary, AB