Mixed farming in a post-modern world
Kingston-area farm has beef, broilers, crops, dairy, hogs, horse stable and on-farm store
KINGSTON — Charlie Cumpson is a lean mean farming machine. And I mean that very literally. There’s no cushioning on the 35-year-old, whose physique is a throwback to when farmers walked miles behind horses, pitched hay by hand and handled milk by the can. Where the modern North American agribusinessman is easily the most well fleshed farmer in all of history, Charlie has the hard hands and wiry build of another era.
And so as surely as a farm is a reflection of the farmer and the farmer is a reflection of his farm, Charlie’s business seemingly also belongs to a bygone age as well. As you go down the list of undertakings at Sonset Farm, it sounds more like Old MacDonald’s than the type of specialized agriculture you typically hear about succeeding in the 21st century. They milk cows, grow grain, mill flour, board horses, finish hogs, raise broilers and breed beef. As if this wasn’t daunting enough, they do it on scale: managing 800 acres of land; and here’s the kicker: they do it all organically.
Charlie’s father, Orrie, laughs into his beer in response to my question. “NO, we were not hippies!” Orrie and his wife Andrea were the second generation of Cumpson’s to milk cows on Latimer Road in Inverary, north of Kingston. When they made the transition to certified organic production during the 1990’s they raised a lot of eyebrows and faced a lot of scepticism. Almost 30 years later, their leap of faith has paid off: Charlie and his wife Hailey’s son Nate is now the fourth generation to share in this family’s love affair with the land.
It was the dirt under his boots that finally sold Orrie on organic farming: he couldn’t argue with the tilth generated by a cover crop of buckwheat. He’s a practical man, and an obviously curious one: for every question I ask, he seems to have one for me in return. “We sort of have to figure things out for ourselves here,” he tells me. There’s no agronomist on speed dial, and not many examples to follow: they can’t readily solve problems with a purchase or another pass of the sprayer. Rather, the intricately layered farm is the product of quiet observation and an understanding of the holding as a complete organism.
Before we get into the ethos and economics of how the Cumpsons carry out their magic, I’ll share with you some basic numbers: they milk about 40 cows, each year grass finish about 20 beeves and the same number of hogs. Hailey boards 20-some horses at Son Ridge Stables, and they run 1,800 broilers through a modest free-range facility through the Chicken Farmers of Ontario Artisanal Chicken program. They mill 10,000 pounds of spelt flour on site, and sell the remaining bulk through organic brokers. They crop about 300 acres of diversified grains (corn, barley oats and peas, spelt and soybeans) and the balance of the 800 acres is in forage for hay and pasture. Through careful and timely investment, they’ve come to own about half of that landbase, increasing on the 70 acres Orrie’s parents originally sharecropped to acquire.
Charlie came on full time with the farm straight out of high school. There was little point in post-secondary education: there are, after all, no programs at Guelph for post-modern yeomanry.
“Most people are tearing out their fences, but we try to build some every spring,” Charlie tells me. At the heart of the farm are grass and cattle: soil builders that drive the farm’s fertility, and have turned their thinly-skinned soils on the limestone tableland of South Frontenac into a verdant and profitable concern.
When you hear about this sort of old style farm, the first thing that comes to mind is that the Cumpsons must be breeding like rabbits to have enough hands on deck to make this possible. On the contrary, Charlie is an only child. “I like to think that if I had a brother, we could take on the world… But this makes succession planning a whole lot easier,” Charlie chuckles.
Fortunately, the diverse nature of their operation spreads out the workload over a season, and makes for a “zero waste” scenario, where corn stover is grazed, cover crops become pastures and straw – oh precious straw! – becomes the habitat for cattle half the year (their milk cows, heifers and beef herd are all deep bedded) and the habitat for the microbial life that unlocks the potential of their often marginal land. They’re congratulated for their efforts by being able to spread composted manure on at least 200 acres of land each season. Legumes and crop rotation take care of the rest. Beyond a squirt of fish fertilizer in the planter and the odd application of lime, there are few outside inputs on this farm.
The soybeans are over Charlie’s belt and filling out nicely. He’s rightfully proud of the crop, though very self-conscious of the odd ragweed here and there. He shouldn’t be. Their three scufflings were clearly timely: many conventional fields aren’t much cleaner. After getting $1,600 per ton for their organic beans last season, they’re swinging for the fences this year with 90 acres of them. The Cumpsons aren’t shy to report that they don’t have the yields of conventional farmers. Their average (whether in the dairy, or in the field) is often about half of what high yielding conventional producers might hope to see. Keep in mind they’re doing this on land that’s as lean as Charlie.
But the economics of it all is obviously working in their favour. Where not only can they support two households, increase their landbase, and also farm with comfortable, high quality, equipment, the Cumpsons also just plainly savour what they’re doing. They pour sweat equity into their operation with every spare hour: the family recently completed a 10,000 square foot dairy barn largely with their own labour. I’ve never heard someone use the word “excited” to describe their farming as much as Charlie does in the same breath that he explains the harsh economic realities of running a mixed farm in 2023.
Enter: Andrea. Andrea Cumpson is a Rickard, and her brother owns just about the cutest and nicest grocery store you’ve ever seen. It’s just north of Kingston, and Glenburnie Grocery is the model of what a community owned business should be. She grew up in the food retail game, and also comes from the sort of stock that raised their own gardens and slaughtered their own meat, not because it was some sort of radical position to take against the food system, but rather, just a sensible way to live and relate to reality.
And so, when Andrea passionately talks about food and farming, it’s not borne of some sort of lovey dovey idealism. It comes from lifelong, direct experience of both ends of the business. She does so beautifully on their Instagram account. It should come as no surprise that these luddite farmers are active on social media: they direct market a significant portion of their meat and grain. Sonset Farm operates an on-farm store, as well as markets through their handy family connection down the road. They sell into commodity markets and they sell to the Milk Board. Their revenues are as diverse as their fields.
And so just as every crop and form of livestock has its place on Sonset Farm, so do the people. Andrea boldly proclaims the vision and meaning of their actions. Orrie is the quiet and wise pater familias at the helm. Charlie can’t wait to figure out the next big problem, and his wife Hailey has the business and people skills to run an entirely different operation at the stable. Their son Nate, four years old, just wants this silly guy from the Farmers Forum to get out of the dooryard so he can get back into the combine with his dad. The Cumpsons: they live to farm.
Charles Summers owns Salt of the Earth Farm, a direct-to-consumer operation selling vegetables at the roadside, near Lyndhurst, Ontario.