Business Mentorship – Lessons Learned: Spray Creek Ranch

Posted by Kristen Nammour on February 09, 2016

Farmer at Spray Creek Ranch on a morning walk with farm dogs and sows

Name, Farm, Location?
We’re Tristan & Aubyn Banwell.  As perhaps you’ve heard, we are located upon magnificent Spray Creek Ranch — in the rainshadow of the Coast Mountains, along the Mighty Fraser, in the Upper St’at’imc Territory, 15 km south of Lillooet, BC.

What were your goals for this season and how did you work to achieve those?
Let’s revisit our spring blog post, where we enumerated a few goals — “We are working to develop a producers’ co-op to coordinate marketing and distribution among our amazing local producers.  Our plan is to have a few producers selling to a few buyers through a food hub during this growing season.  Another big goal is to develop our slaughter capacity through the acquisition of our Class D on-farm slaughter licence and the renovation of a meat shop on the farm.  And we want to work toward holding a workshop with Mark Shepard on our farm, which — in case you aren’t familiar with Restoration Agriculture — is kind of a big deal.”

So, we did indeed pilot a food hub over the summer.  We commandeered friend Katrina Ferrari, who — in addition to keeping hundreds of chickens happy on pasture — managed to build the foundation for this idea to set on.  By season’s end, we had eight local producers selling vegetables, meat, eggs, flowers, and herbs to 12 regular buyers — including restaurants, cafes, events and individuals — through a sexy online platform.  We got media coverage in various periodicals and on CBC Radio Kamloops.  Over 70 producers and buyers signed up for accounts to see what it was all about.  We thought this was a great start!  We also engaged the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District and our local Agricultural Advisory Committee, who have helped us access a consultant who put together a business plan we can use to organize our efforts going forward.  We must have done a good job with this food hub stuff, because the Pemberton Farmers’ Institute recently invited us to share our experiences with them, presumably so that they can steal all our good ideas and prosper.  All for one, one for all, I say!  Learn more at

morning light over lillooet valley warms herd of spray creek ranch cattle

We also did indeed attain our Class D Slaughter Licence over the summer.  We made great strides forward in restoring and outfitting our meat shop with used, begged, borrowed & bought equipment, and we utilized the space to slaughter 700 meat chickens throughout the summer.  All our birds were marketed locally, almost all right in our small town of ~2000 residents.  We are now looking at the possibility of upgrading to a Class A facility that could help other local ranches and farms get their products to market.  In the meantime, our Class D licence is making it possible to grow our meat enterprises while ensuring we meet the requirements to ensure the health and safety of our products.  We learned a lot from our Interior Health inspectors, and the process was not painful for us.  Tristan will be discussing this in more detail in a session at the COABC Conference in late February.

As for the workshop…  We’ve pivoted a bit in our thinking (maybe a little too dry here for Mark) and now we’re considering the possibility of working with other land designers.  One thing is for sure — we need to make the space and time to make a plan sooner than later.

Did you meet your goals / Did it work out?
We feel like the season was a success.  There are things we still need to adjust to make our operations sustainable going forward, but I think we are on the right track.

What were your most profitable avenues of sales?
In meat chicken sales, the Lillooet Farmers’ Market (LFM) and associated sales were most profitable for us, accounting for just over 50% of our sales in dollars.  This included wholesale orders of 10 birds or more that we delivered at the LFM.  Attending the LFM was worthwhile for us, as we attended just six market days and moved over half of our birds there.  Ye Olde Facebooke was very helpful in promoting and arranging these sales.  The remaining half of sales was split, with about a quarter each in farmgate sales and product moved through our local food hub.

What is your unique value proposition in your market? Why buy from you?
Spray Creek Chickens are:

  • Heritage breeds and slow-growing non-commercial hybrids
  • Sourced from a small, independent BC hatchery
  • Raised outdoors on lush, diverse pasture
  • Fed only certified organic non-GMO feed, free of soy and corn
  • Slaughtered on-farm at our own licensed facility
  • Treated with love, care and respect from hatch to plate

Spray Creek Ranch set up at the Lillooet Farmer's Market

How did the mentorship impact your business?
Our mentors at K&M Farm jump-started us from the ‘backyard-scale’ to the ‘extra-small-scale’ level of operation.  They are a bona-fide small-scale operation, raising 5,000 chickens and 2,000 turkeys per year within the quota system.  Their scale, along with Mark’s background as a government agrologist, means they are uniquely qualified to help a little guy play in a big kid’s game.  We learned about which equipment from the big poultry barns they have adapted for use on their scale, where to find it used and how to get it cheap.  They showed us the homebrewed technologies that work, as well as the versions that are sitting by the compost pile.  They helped us identify those critical control points in your operation where you can have real problems with disease, predators and health issues.  They also shared benchmark numbers that helped us set our goals, like a target profit per bird and their stocking per acre.

What business skills have you gained through the mentorship?
The single most important business tool we took from the mentorship was the cash flow analysis.  We already have a well-developed system of enterprise budgets we use to plan and assess a season’s enterprises.  However, we were not looking at all the enterprises in a simplified, consolidated cash flow analysis.  This has helped us to understand when the money is going out, when it is coming in, and how the balance among enterprises is changing year to year.  That will be critical as we grow, and I view it as an indispensable part of our accounting now.

The Cash Flow Analysis Webinar Series was also our introduction to webinars and the technology that makes this possible.  We live in a collection of remote communities, and it can take four hours to drive from one side of the Lillooet ‘trading area’ to the other.  Furthermore, the community of farmers involved in regenerative agriculture is spread across the globe.  We are keen to utilize this type of technology to increase participation and cooperation while reducing fossil fuel usage and travel time.

What was the most important information you gained from your mentor?
“If you are having problems in the brooder, get the heat up and the humidity down.”  I thought that was a solid, simple tip.  Seeing all they’ve accomplished on a relatively small farm was inspiring.  Perhaps most significantly, they showed us that an on-farm cut & wrap is achievable, and helped to demystify the regulatory and inspection landscape.

Overall, how are you feeling about your farm business this season?
We are feeling positive.  The farm business feels like it’s at a point where we need to jump from the mentality of a big homestead to a serious farm business running multiple successful enterprises.  The community is behind us, there are opportunities everywhere, and the land is improving already…  It feels good!

Did you learn any lessons the hard way?

New Farmers at Spray Creek Ranch rescue organic chickens from a water leakHa!  Ha ha!  Yes, of course.  How many do you want to hear?

Hard Lesson 1: Make sure to tighten down the jam nut on your automatic brooder waterers.
If you don’t, eventually the chicks will swivel the waterer around enough to cause a leak and you’ll be — can I include a photo here? — you’ll be rescuing sad, wet chicks stranded on Litter Island.

Hard Lesson 2: Harden off your chicks just like baby plants before putting them outside in the early season.
We put one early group of three-week-old birds out on pasture in too large a group without transitioning them sufficiently to the chilly outside temperatures.  They piled up overnight and a dozen were suffocated under the pile.  That was a very sad and deflating morning on the farm.

Hard Lesson 3: Do not set frozen meat down anywhere except inside a freezer or inside a designated cooler.
We set down two frozen chickens ‘just for a second’ inside a freezer that was turned off.  Believe me, you will not be able to sell these chickens when you find them a week later.

Bonus Lessons 4 & 5: Soil health is critical to human health.  And, you should not rush to complete a roofing project  while it is snowing.  In the dark.
Specifically, I learned Lesson 5 roughly halfway to the ground. Luckily, most of me landed on a healthy, well-mulched raised garden bed, inspiring Lesson 4.

Do you have any big plans for future growth?
We are planning some growth in the coming season.  We would like to increase our broiler operation by 40%, increase our laying flock to our final ‘small lot authorization’ total of 399 hens, and double the size of our cow-calf herd.  In addition, we are looking for someone to run a vegetable operation on a portion of the land we are restoring to perennial pasture.  Annnd we want to try growing a small plot of grain for a new local bakery.

Did anything silly happen on your farm this season?
Our neighbour came by in mid-February out for a walk and said, “You got a calf on the wrong side that ‘lectric fence.”  “Don’t have any calves,” I said.  “Don’t start calving ‘til April.”  He looks at me funny and says, “There’s one brown one there, and another one down the hill.”  I was skeptical, but we tromped over and sure enough a cow had twinned, leaving one calf behind to have the second elsewhere.  My neighbour had spotted the lone calf because our farm guardian dog Samsquanch was lying out there licking it clean!

Very surprised, I rolled back the calendar 274 days, and found an email to our business partners that said the following: “Day before yesterday, the bull suddenly showed up rather agitated on the road.  We used the quad to herd him back into his field, and then investigated to find that a large cottonwood had broken off 10 metres above the ground and dropped into Spray Creek, taking with it several other trees and a substantial portion of the fence.  He escaped again yesterday and tried to make his way to the cows, which would be an early breeding disaster at this point.”  Little did we know he had done more than ‘tried’!

What are you most looking forward to this winter?
We are very much looking forward to travelling to California to visit family and attend Permaculture Voices 3!  Hope we’ll see some of you there.

Spray Creek Ranch - Early Calves

Funding for the Young Agrarians Business Mentorship Network Pilot is provided in part by Salt Spring Coffee, Vancity, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the BC Ministry of Agriculture through programs delivered by the Investment Agriculture Foundation of BC. 

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