B.C. Business Mentorship Network – Brass Bell Farm

Posted by Melanie Buffel on November 18, 2020

Young Agrarians is celebrating the seventh year of the Business Mentorship Network (BMN) program. The BMN offers business mentorships  to a diverse array of new and young farmers across BC. Through one-on-one mentorship and peer networks, young farmers develop the skills necessary to operate ecologically sustainable and financially viable farm businesses.

Applications are now open for our BMN 2021 Mentee Cohort. Find more information and an application form here. Deadline to apply has been extended to November 20th, 2020. 

We are wrapping up with our 2020 Mentee Cohort and are thrilled to profile them and celebrate their efforts!

Amber Rowse- Robinson is the owner of Brass Bell Farm in Sooke, BC and is a participant in the 2020 Young Agrarians Business Mentorship Network Program.

What were your goals for this season and how did you work to achieve those?

Broadly speaking, my main goal was to streamline the transition of my farm from hobby to business. I was targeting three main aspects in this mentorship: Land and grazing management and expansion, business model and logistics, and herd growth.

By utilizing my Mentor’s expertise, I was able to develop a rotational grazing plan that focused primarily on improving my pastures and learning in-depth about the plants that grow there. I learned how to measure amounts of available forage in specific areas, and how to use the cattle to increase biodiversity, enhance grass growth and extend our grazing season. Because I lease 100% of the farmland I use, gaining additional pasture leases was crucial to growing my herd. I started with approximately 25 acres, and in the spring was able to move some cattle to a 100-acre property shared with another farmer. That 100 acres has now turned into a long-term, year-round lease. I also anticipate additional grazing opportunities to open this spring. 

As for the business side of things, cattle are slow-growing and it will still be a couple of years before I am producing the amount of beef to reach my production goals. However, I shifted our offerings this year from simply “by the quarter, side or whole” to selling freezer boxes of a variety of different products (coming November 2020). Accessibility is one of my main priorities when it comes to feeding my community, and this shift has made purchasing my product more financially and logistically possible for many of the families wanting to source high-quality meat. I also increased the number of whole chickens I raised and added a breeding pair of pigs so that we can offer heritage pastured pork next season.    

Did you meet your goals / did it work out? 

After a winter of planning with my Mentor Blake, I was so excited for the grazing season to begin and put theory into practice. In May however, one of my best cows died unexpectedly, I decided to sell her calf, and plans to increase my stocking rate were not coming into fruition. It was heartbreaking to watch the grass grow and sit by idly as all my planning became irrelevant. Without enough cattle, I couldn’t execute my grazing approach properly.  I felt at a loss as to how to move forward. Those struggles however, are ultimately what brought about my decision to work with some different breeds and build the herd I truly desired. Once I had decided, the opportunities opened up effortlessly, and I am thrilled about where things are at today. I have almost sold off my existing herd and am in the process of finalizing sales on new stock arriving this winter.

What effect did Covid19 have on your business?

If there can be a silver lining of Covid19, the circumstances brought about a new awareness of food security, and a desire for people to source food closer to home. I was already sold out of product for the season when Covid19 hit, but added many folks to our wait list, and also heard from fellow meat producers that there was demand for their product unlike anything they had seen before. The unfortunate side is that two of our local abattoirs closed, and despite farmers having product ready for harvest, and a high market demand – there was a bottleneck in services when it became nearly impossible to procure butcher dates. There was also a bizarre phenomenon of “panic-buying” livestock and poultry (and the supplies that go with them). I had a hard time sourcing meat chicks for a while as the hatchery we’ve used for 6 years was completely sold out without warning.

What were your best sales channels/avenues? 

My main focus is always relationship. Our customer base grows each year simply through word-of-mouth or by engaging people through social media. I always try to offer a transparent and realistic view of how my animals are raised and this seems to resonate with people.

Why do your customers buy from you (what is your unique value proposition in your market)? 

I am very passionate about what I do, and I think people see that. I don’t use a lot of jargon or labelling, I speak honestly and openly about my practices and my goals with the business, and this helps facilitate the connection to food that so many are looking for. My customers know that I care about my animals deeply, and I have been told our products are some of the best.

 What was the most important information or idea(s) you gained from the mentorship?

A more concrete approach to managing my pasture and grazing seasons. I understood the general concepts, but having specific steps defined with Blake that I can now replicate and adjust in future seasons and on different properties has not only been helpful practically, but also provided me with the confidence to take on more land and know I can manage it well.

What specific business skills did the mentorship help you develop?

I gained a greater understanding of the beef industry, and how to take my product from farm to table, while working with abattoirs and butchers to get the results I wanted.

How did mentorship impact your business overall?

It was so helpful for me to have a ‘sounding board’ in Blake. I don’t have anyone in my immediate circle of peers or connections that could answer so many of the questions I had. Sometimes they were just quick questions, or wanting an opinion on an animal or piece of equipment. It was great being able to just send a text as needed, in addition to our longer phone meetings. This guidance really helped me to develop my vision for the farm and plans for moving forward. The best part about it for me was that Blake believed in my ideas – even though they are unusual. I am perhaps an unconventional person to take up cattle farming and southern Vancouver Island is an unconventional place for it! I know many would have dismissed my ideas and goals or would not have considered my small operation “serious” enough to bother with. I am up against these attitudes constantly and was so grateful to find genuine support in Blake.

What were the big hard lessons this season you would want to share with other farmers?

There are so many barriers to livestock farming: purchasing animals, feed and equipment is costly; land accessibility is a challenge, and even the culture can be a barrier in itself. Sometimes I feel the weight of this and question my path, especially when farms more prominent and established than I, are closing down each week. Stay agile and diverse, find your people, and anticipate uncertainty. None of us know what is coming, and I personally take comfort in the small things. If you can’t find anyone doing things the way you want to, that doesn’t mean your ideas aren’t good. In fact, they may be exactly what this world needs.

What plans do you have for future farm growth (where would you like your business to go)?

As current farmers begin to retire, I plan to be in a position to take on more and more land leases to help keep farmland productive in the area and bridge the subsequent gaps in our local food system. I will continue to expand our grass-fed cattle herd, pastured pigs and poultry, and hope to get back into sheep when the time is right. In addition to supplying local families and restaurants, I would like to see my products in butcher shops and expand my product line.

What are you most looking forward to this winter?

More cows!

www.brassbellfarm.com Find us on IG and FB @brassbellfarm

Find out more about the Business Mentorship Program and fill out an application here. Deadline for submissions has been extended to November 20, 2020. 

This program is made possible with the generous funding support of Vancity and Columbia Basin Trust.