Robert Overmars:  the most welcoming dairy farmer in Nova Scotia

I’ve been searching for a dairy farmer to be part of The Hands that Feed Us for the better part of a year. Originally, I imagined working with a farmer in Québec’s dairy heartland, but as my luck wore thin, I started looking farther afield. Despite many promising conversations, I started my final week at The Farm with The Good Food without a place to go next. I was starting to wonder whether I’d have to return to B.C. without filming a key chapter of the story.

So, I almost didn’t believe it when Robert Overmars said he liked the project and was interested in hosting me. Robert — a friend of a Facebook friend of my Nova Scotia-based producers — watched my YouTube videos, and decided The Hands that Feed Us was worth supporting. Not only that, he immediately solved another challenge: He had a place for me to self-isolate for two weeks while joined the Atlantic Bubble.

So, that is how I find myself writing these words in a comfortable two-bedroom apartment in the university town of Antigonish, Nova Scotia. Because he’s a last minute addition, I know less about Robert than I did my other farmers, but on first impression he’s been a conscientious and caring host who, despite the need to maintain distance, has made me feel incredibly welcome. I’m sure his cows appreciate it, and here’s a secret: Cows produce more milk when they are pampered and comfortable, so I’m sure these qualities are good for his milk production as well!

Getting paid once a year:  Welcome to raising cattle

Things move slowly at The Farm with The Good Food. Despite having spent almost two months on the farm, in two separate visits, I still feel like I don’t have a complete view of how the farm operates. In fact, I’ll likely visit one more time during calving season in February or March.

Partly, this feeling is related to the time of year I was there: In the summer months, the cattle take care of themselves on pasture, eating and drinking and gaining the all-important pounds that will determine how much they are worth when they are finally sold. Susan, the farmer, checked in on them once a week or so, but unless the cattle jumped a fence or encountered a porcupine, there wasn’t much reason to worry. Even the death of an old cow wasn’t much cause for concern; nature took its course surprisingly quickly, and the corpse decomposed where it lay.

That’s not to say nothing happened. Summer is time for building, and this year’s project was a calving shed, designed to shelter the cows when they give birth in the bitter cold of prairie winter. It may not be heated, but keeping the newborn calves out of the wind could be the difference between life and death. The calving shed slowly took shape while I was around, starting with a long wait for the ground to dry out so the posts could be planted in solid ground, and ending as the tin roof was bolted on in the middle of the first snowstorm.  I was able to contribute myself, drilling hundreds of screws into the plywood roof to keep it secure in the wind.

In the last week of my visit, the weather turned and suddenly there was work to do beyond making sure the cattle were still where they were supposed to be.  After months on pasture, the cattle had grazed out most of the edible food, which meant Susan now had to choose which of the herd she would feed through the winter, and which she would sell at auction. This is a critical choice for the farm: The cattle she keeps will cost her money to feed through the winter, and the ones she sells provide money to pay for that feed — and everything else on the farm — for the next year. Hopefully, there will also be some left for Susan to live on!

This once-a-year paycheque is part of the slow rhythm of the farm. It’s possible she might sell the odd spare cow out of cycle, or perhaps she would sell yearling calves in the spring rather than steers and heifers (neutered males and unbred females, respectively) in the fall. But, overall, the farm relies on one or two large sales to cover the whole year’s worth of expenses.

But here’s the craziest part. Susan’s cattle spend about 18 months of their life on her farm. During that time, she feeds and shelters them, and they grow from newborn calves to nearly full-sized cattle. By the time they are sold, they weigh 800-900 pounds and are worth about $1,500-$1,800 each. That sounds like a lot.  But imagine if instead of raising cattle, she was raising people. By weight, let’s say six people — a family — equals one cow. Can you imagine the cost of feeding and sheltering six people for 18 months? Could you do it on a budget of $100 a month for the whole family? That’s essentially what Susan is able to do: Each cow she raises is like feeding and sheltering a family of six for a year and a half. Somehow, she is not only able to meet that budget, she may even have a little bit left at the end to live on herself.

Driving across Canada — with kittens!

Getting to Antigonish was no small feat. Even before I knew Robert was onboard, I had to find out whether I would even be allowed to go. Thanks to COVID-19, travelling to the Maritimes meant looking up the travel restrictions in six different provinces — and the Atlantic Bubble meant I had to register my presence with both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Aside from that, I was planning to drive across the continent! According to Google, driving from Red Deer to Antigonish would take 50 hours, a road distance of nearly 5,000 kilometres! I have to admit, I gave the logistics of the trip surprisingly little thought — I reached out to friends across the country, and managed to plot a route that had me paying for accommodation in only three places: Saskatoon, Thunder Bay, and Cochrane, Ontario. And, thanks to an anonymous donation from another filmmaker, the hotel in Cochrane was paid for!

I hit the road with two adorable kittens for company — the cats at The Farm with The Good Food had a very prolific summer, and the farmer I was staying with near Winnipeg had a mouse problem in his tractor shop. I was sad to leave them behind, but they probably wouldn’t have appreciated spending the next four days in my car to cover the rest of my journey east.

Driving across Canada gave me my first experience of a real Canadian winter. Even in late October, there was snow on the ground through almost the whole journey. This is unheard of for someone raised on the West Coast! Luckily, it was mostly not on the highways. I gained an appreciation of how distinct the various geographic regions are. This was most obvious entering Ontario. After days of nothing but prairie, all of a sudden, I saw a line of trees, and just like that, the flatlands disappeared and I was driving through forest. I had the same feeling when I turned south out of the St. Lawrence River valley towards New Brunswick: After six hours of fertile, flat farmland, suddenly I was driving through rugged, snow-bound hills.

The last leg of my journey was a unique challenge: a condition of entering the Atlantic Bubble was that I had to go straight to the apartment where I was isolating. I was allowed to stop for gas and drive-through meals, but not to stay the night. Immediately before entering New Brunswick, I would be in Québec, where the St. Lawrence Seaway is dotted with “zones rouges” where businesses are shut down and residents aren’t allowed to leave. The COVID-19 rules in Québec were … hard to understand (English translations nonwithstanding), and I was worried if I stopped I would become subject to the same travel restrictions.

I eventually concluded that my only course of action was to do the entire drive in one shot: A 16 hour marathon from Ottawa to Antigonish, where I would pass through four provinces in a single day. I left at six in the morning — and promptly hit rush hour in Montréal. Worse, my mobile data reached capacity at the same time, which meant I suddenly didn’t have a reliable map of where I was going. So there I was, navigating Montréal’s highway spaghetti in stop-and-go traffic, and my comprehension of the road signage was only semi-fluent. The green maple-leaf TransCanada highway signs were my saviour — I knew they would eventually take me through Québec, but I definitely missed a few turns on the way.

I had the presence of mind to put a camera in my windshield for the journey, so I have a complete record of the trip. I don’t imagine 50 hours of dashcam footage will make riveting entertainment for anyone, but perhaps I’ll have to come up with a new documentary to make use of it…

Filming ‘Til the Cows Come Home

Staying at the Farm with The Good Food was a unique challenge to me for an unusual and personal reason: I’m a lifelong vegetarian. That meant a crash course in getting comfortable with animals, both as food and as friends. I had some special challenges figuring out how to film the cattle at the farm, which I documented in my ongoing YouTube updates.

Here’s some of the highlights:

As a bonus, I also have two videos that document my drive across Canada: Driving Across Canada – With Kittens! and The Most Inviting Place Name in Canada.

What’s next?

Right now I’m finishing my self-isolation in Antigonish, feeling a bit like a trapped rat. But, once I finish, I’ll be on the home stretch:

  • I plan to spend roughly four weeks filming how dairy farming works with Robert Overmars.
  • I’ve also become intrigued by a piece of local history: The Antigonish Movement was designed to improve rural economies in Nova Scotia — and eventually across Canada — by helping local residents learn about business and finance. This translated into starting lots of co-ops and credit unions. I’ll be investigating whether this model is still relevant to farmers today.
  • While I’m here, I plan to talk to the dairy processor that Robert delivers his milk to and see if I can learn some more about how the supply management system works.
  • After that, I have a long journey home … wherever that will be. I’ll be done the bulk of my filming by the beginning of December, and I’ll have to figure out where I can stay while I edit my raw footage into a documentary worthy of all the farmers that have hosted me.

How can I help?

  • Forward this newsletter to one person you know who is interested in food issues.
  • Share one of my YouTube updates on social media.  Driving Across Canada – With Kittens is a good one to share because it includes a quote from Nettie Wiebe that cuts to the heart of the project.
  • Do you know people in odd places across Canada? I’m looking for people who can host me on my return journey, especially outside of major cities. Northern Ontario and Québec in particular are spots where I don’t know many people.