©2020 Jordan Snobelen. All rights reserved. 

  • Jordan Snobelen

Farming the old(ish) way

Located along a picturesque drive just outside of New Hamburg sits a small artisanal farm nearly indiscernible behind a row of trees. John and Sarah Moylan, along with their four daughters; Caileigh, Laine, Maddie and Eilish, make up the family farm, 5 Chicks and a Farmer.

It’s after 6 a.m. when I arrive on my first visit and the sun has started to burn off the dense, pillowy fog blanketing the fields. The tranquil quiet and peaceful stillness of the earthy morning air cracks with the sound of an ATV motor as John rides over.

He’s a slender man wearing rubber boots, shorts and a button-up plaid shirt. Grey hair, at odds with a youthful, clean-shaven face, peeks out from underneath his ball cap. He’s soft-spoken with a humble, reserved demeanour. I swap out my running shoes for boots, and John shows me around. “This isn’t your grandpa’s farm,” he says, pulling from a quote he can’t place. As I get my hands dirty, he answers relentless questions with a candour that’s not only surprising but refreshing. He’s adamant there’s nothing to hide here — what you see is what you get.

John grew up in McKillop, near Dublin, Ont. His late father, Don Moylan, owned and operated a farm. Despite the early experience planting a dream of being a farmer, John instead opted to pursue the job security found in construction.

After marrying, John and Sarah settled in New Hamburg where they had two children.

In the autumn of 2008, a 100-acre property, complete with a 2,000-square-foot home, in-ground pool and barn went on the market. The Moylans always believed they would call a farm home and, looking for a change, they purchased the property in late 2009. What they didn’t know at the time was that John’s dream of farming would become a reality.

John continued commuting to work sites, bringing long days away from home, while Sarah stayed busy with a landscaping business, co-owned with her sister, Erin Autio, while raising their children. “That got draining; we knew something had to change,” Sarah told me on a second visit, saying they were “desperate for a lifestyle change.”

“At that time, in my mind, we had decided I would pretty much be able to sort of farm on the side … I always liked the idea of being around the family, but I sort of decided it wasn’t going to happen … it was later on when we started reading some books and saw other people doing this sort of stuff when we realized it was actually a viable business,” John recalled.

Ideas were tossed around at first for a dairy production, but the upfront cost and time involved for milking made the prospect too risky and intimidating.

Weeds of doubt were sprouting around their ambition when the Moylans discovered the Chicken Farmers of Ontario’s Artisanal Chicken program. Allowing smaller farms a chance at entering into the market without large infrastructure investments and costly minimum purchase and production quotas, the program places a cap on the amount of chickens the Moylans can sell at 3,000, while charging a small “license fee” for every bird.

What began with a couple of hens quickly evolved into a host of chickens, turkeys, cattle, heritage-breed pigs and certified-organic crops. Now at 44 years old, John has been farming full-time for three years.

The journey hasn't been without challenges. With only seven cows in 2016, market prices tanked and the Moylans were forced to get creative. Their first beef sale was facilitated through Facebook’s Marketplace. Later, a cow died, a significant loss that was a result of “frothy bloat” from alfalfa. This past spring, they suffered a loss of 70 chicks, thanks to a mischievous cat.

During the first winter season, the couple sat at their kitchen table cold-calling “restaurant after restaurant,” Sarah said. “It went surprisingly well … we were blown away at the beginning, actually, at the number of (chefs) that were, like, 'sure, I’ll give it a shot.'”

The Lancaster Smokehouse in Kitchener has been using John’s chickens since the spring of 2018. Co-owner and chef Tim Borys told me during an interview at the restaurant that when John initially pitched his product, he avoided marketing clichés of lower prices and supply, instead focusing on ethics and quality — an approach that appealed to Borys and revealed John’s “care and passion.”

“He’s really into the farm-side of things,” Borys said.

Borys describes the meat from John’s chickens as dark and vibrant with a reddish hue running throughout, accompanied by a “fuller flavour.” The chef of 10 years is happy to let the taste of the chicken play front-and-centre on his half and full-roast plates, only adding a little sauce and smoke to enhance the chicken’s natural flavour.

Despite the encouraging results, the Moylans still were not selling enough. “More than half of (the chickens) were in the freezer at the end of the year, and I was kind of pulling my hair out,” John said. He says marketing and the building of a customer base is an uphill battle.

When starting out, John felt like a novice with how much practices had changed since his father’s farm methods. And yet he considers it an advantage to start with a fresh perspective, separated from preconceived notions.

Large-scale farming tends to embrace industrial-level animal production and mono-crops, relying on technology, genetically engineered seeds, fertilizers and the heavy spraying of pesticides to produce better yields and profits. “It’s almost a mind warp to say, OK, we’re not going to do that, we’re going to be small-scale and be direct sale,” he told me.

The couple are adamant they don’t harbour ill feelings toward large-scale farming, saying it’s just not for them. “I can’t even say for sure that we’re right, or that this is right,” John said. He’s discovered the merits and a passion for practices adopted from farms like Polyface and Brown’s Ranch in the U.S., which emphasize rotational grazing and cover-crops to maximize the production of forage and nutritional soil health, without the need for fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides, all of which the Moylans stay away from.

John promotes his animals as pasture-raised. During the first four weeks of life, chicks and turkeys are raised on non-GMO grain within enclosed, homemade “brooders,” and a probiotic/vitamin supplement is added to their water. Chickens live the remainder of their lives (up to eight weeks) in the outdoor “chicken tractors” — homemade mesh cages allowing chickens to exercise and peck away over a focused area of pasture — while turkeys freely roam around a fenced-in enclosure. Cattle are raised on pasture until they reach 1,000 pounds, when they’re transitioned to a non-GMO feed which John says helps with marbling and flavour. His pigs are heritage-bred — older breeds that haven’t been “leaned out,” John explained as he hulled out a chaff of rye, munching on the raw seeds.

On most mornings, John can be found working up a sweat, moving around the tractors full of squabbling chickens, checking on his pigs and replenishing food and water for his chicks, turkeys and cattle. The rest of the day is spent working fields, shuffling his kids around, marketing or running deliveries for customer orders to drop-off points in New Hamburg, Stratford, Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge and Toronto. During the summertime, family and farm life are interchange when the Moylans’ four girls, aged 12, 10, 6 and 3, follow one another around, helping out with chores.

Alfons Weersink, a professor of food, agriculture and resource economics at the University of Guelph, predicts more small, niche-market farms will emerge with a “hollowing out” of the middle ground between large and small operations; a trend he compares to the boom of small, local craft breweries. He explained that while technology has allowed farms to efficiently grow with a business model geared to large volumes at a lower price-point, small-scale farms have an opportunity to focus on consumers who care about more about process than cost.

5 Chicks and a Farmer recently entered into the realm of organically-certified livestock with the purchase of 21 cows and calves, but John doesn't have any plans to go fully organic with his livestock anytime soon. He wants to focus on getting as close as possible to a no-till operation, a practice allowing the soil’s nutrient buildup to remain undisturbed.

As the end of their third growing season approaches, the Moylans are learning to let go of the things they can’t control, and focus on the things they can. Despite the lack of freedom afforded by the labour-intensive operation, John and Sarah say their lifestyle can’t be beat, and consider themselves lucky and optimistic about the future. “We’re feeling a little bit more comfortable with it,” Sarah said.

When the stress of figuring out the dream overwhelms and the land becomes more take than give, there’s always a beer, the cool relief of a pool and the enduring support only a family can provide. In the end, that’s what their sacrifice has really all been about. ◊

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