By Connor Lynch
WINCHESTER — The eternal optimism of a farmer, particularly a self-made one, can carry them through much. But not everything.
After too many years of red ink, Winchester’s Dan O’Brien called it quits in July. The land, 108 acres, was to be sold in October. By August he’d sold most of the herd, and was down to two animals, though his farm equipment was to be auctioned in September. COVID-19 restrictions dealt the final blow to a business that had been in the red for years, he said. The agri-food sector in general but especially livestock farmers have been hit hard by COVID-19 lockdowns. As many as 15 per cent of farms could go under by the end of the year.
The farm, which marketed beef to local restaurants and consumers in the Ottawa-area, was a labour of love for the 65-year old O’Brien, but not his first foray into farming. Born on a mixed farm in Greely, he ran a farm in Osgoode, where he bred Simmental feedstock. In the early 1990s he was exporting cattle to countries around the globe: China, Brazil and Mexico, to name a few. “We were very successful in the show ring and sale ring but the bottom line wasn’t.” So he sold the farm and got into another line of work, running a school bus business.
But around 2007 he sold it and found he still had the farming itch. Local food was just starting to take off. “I sat with multiple chefs. Every single one said they would buy from me. That was an attraction.”
So it was back to farming. After he sold the bus business he bought his current farm at Winchester and built up to about 200 head of cattle.
“It was basically run-down. We built a modern facility here. It has everything except the bottom line.”
When COVID-19 hit in March things were going okay, he said, even though the restaurants had shut down. For 60 days, people would buy everything he could produce. Many people weren’t looking for individual cuts but buying a quarter of an animal at a time.
“But after 60 days, all of a sudden, the scare was over. Cargill was back open, grocery stores had lots of beef,” he said. “So business went back to the previous pattern.”
His retail customers went back to looking for individual, high-quality cuts: steaks and roasts. But without restaurants to take the ground beef, he couldn’t meet demand. “For every steak, I have to sell 9 lb. of ground beef. I was having to continually tell people ‘I can’t fill your order,’ while I have hundreds of pounds of ground beef.”
And restaurants were buying way less than normal when they did start reopening. One that had been buying 300 lb. of ground beef a week was down to 100 lb. But not only were they not taking enough of the lesser-quality cuts he needed to sell, they were buying less of everything. “If they can get prime rib for $4 less per lb. from Cargill, sometimes economics forces them to do that.”
Before COVID-19, the business had been stable. “Money-losing, but stable,” he said. But this was too much.
He’s not bitter about the situation. “I wanted to do this. I did it.” Along the way he met some of the nicest people “you could possibly meet,” and was touched by the outpouring of support from longtime customers when he decided to call it quits.
O’Brien added that up until Oct. 16, when the farm and business are sold, he’ll be very busy. “No plans for after that.”