By Kim Waalderbos
The grandson of Mrs. Feathers has diversified the family operation
By Kim Waalderbos
Gilbert and Stacy Matheson are keen to involve their children in day-to-day farm life. Kara (8), Bradford (6), Cecily (4), Silas (2) and Soloman (6 months) lend a hand with chores like setting out baby chicks, rounding up cows and gathering eggs. Photo courtesy of Cecile Matheson.
He’s been eagerly crossing the road between his childhood home and his grandparents farm in southern New Brunswick since he was a toddler. Gilbert Matheson was by his grandparents’ side, gathering eggs, tending cattle and working fields. Today, Gilbert and his wife, Stacy, call the farmstead at Grant’s Breeder Farm Ltd. in Kars, N.B. their own and cross that barnyard alongside their five children as they carry on the family farm.
When Gilbert graduated high school in 2000, he immediately began working full time with his grandparents, Donald and Colleen Grant, on their farm. Then it comprised 4,000 layer breeders, 14,000 pullets and 20 beef cows. Gilbert diligently saved his money, and married Stacy, a dairy farmer’s daughter, and by 2004 the young couple transitioned to the helm as farm owners.
“My grandfather believed that if you wanted to pass on the farm — even to your own kids — that they should pay for it,” Gilbert says, adding you’ll work harder for something you’re invested in.
Perched on a hill overlooking beautiful Belleisle Bay, the farm has grown and diversified since ownership changed in 2004. Gilbert and Stacy modernized the existing barns and found efficiencies. In 2007 they bought a second farm in Hatfield Point, eight kilometers away, with an additional barn to house their flock, which had grown to 32,000 pullets and 5,000 breeders.
In 2008, Gilbert realized his dream to have a dairy farm when he was successfully accepted to the N.B. new entrant program. He traded the beef herd for registered Jerseys and Holsteins, and, with the help of a brother and an uncle, invested sweat equity to construct a freestall dairy barn.
In 2011, the couple were chosen in another new entrant program, this time for egg layer quota. Under the program they currently have quota for 2,400 hens.
The Mathesons have a small licensed grading station, and have graded and marketed their own eggs to local customers and stores. Since 2012, their eggs have been graded and sold by Maritime Pride Eggs Inc. in Nova Scotia. They continue to maintain their grading station for a few local stores.
Striking a balance
It may sound like a juggling act, but to the Matheson family the diverse pieces are a perfect complement. “It all fits together,” Gilbert explains. The hen manure is cheap fertilizer for the grass grown to feed the cows, and to sell as hay. Machinery for the dairy herd doubles to clean out poultry barns and haul the manure.
Gilbert is a numbers guy — keen to track progress and find efficiencies. “I don’t like the status quo, I like challenge,” says Gilbert, adding while he’s not the first to jump on new technology he’s always exploring ideas.
Gilbert gives credit to a great team. While keeping an eye on all aspects, he focuses most of his energy on the dairy herd and outdoor work. Stacy looks after the bookkeeping, homeschooling, and pitches in as Jill-of-all-trades around the farm. Long-time employee Sherry Nancekivell is devoted to caring for the pullets and laying hens. Neighbour and retired poultry farmer Stephen Harper pitches in when needed. And Gilbert’s family has been supportive and lending their time, whether it’s unloading new baby chicks in the barn or watching kids.
From humble beginnings
Chosen from a lineup of young boys at an orphanage in St. John, N.B., in 1940, then ten-year-old Donald Grant found himself as a farm hand for Miles Jenkins. College-age Jenkins had lost his father and needed an extra set of hands to milk cows and fell trees.
Donald could attend school only on days when there were no farm chores — a rare occurrence. “He never learned to read or write,” says Gilbert of his grandfather, “but he sure had a sharp memory. He’d never forget details.”
Donald would meet and marry Colleen, the daughter of a butcher. He would remain as a farmhand for Jenkins until he was 26 years old, then he went to work in the woods for neighbouring farmers.
In 1957, the owner of one such woodlot approached Donald with an offer to sell him the farm. “My grandmother still has the original purchase agreement,” marvels Gilbert.
Donald and Colleen branched beyond hens to milking cows and cream shipping in the 1960s. Gardening and woods work in the winter helped round out the farm. “My grandfather disliked milking cows,” says Gilbert, so in the 1980s his grandparents transitioned to breeders and pullets.
Carving out a market
Today, Grant’s Breeder Farm Ltd. is the only farm in Atlantic Canada with Hungarian genetics, Tetra breeders: Tetra-Brown, Tetra-Amber and Tetra-White. “They’re quiet birds, will suited for free-run production and good producers too,” Gilbert describes. The farm is also one of the few in Canada raising breeders without having their own hatchery. “We prefer the flexibility,” he says.
Between the two barns, four batches of pullets are raised annually. The first 8,000 are kept for replacements, and with the other 24,000 pullets Gilbert says they’ve carved out a niche marketing to smaller market quota holders and to feed stores for “pullet days” with customers in all four Atlantic provinces. “It enables us to generate a little more margin than selling them as a commercial pullet farm.”
Until two years ago, Grant’s Breeder Farm Ltd. was also the only free-run commercial layer flock in Atlantic Canada. Now there are two other such layer flocks. “The layer cage is the most efficient way to raise an egg, there’s no way around it,” says Gilbert, “but if the customer is willing to pay extra it’s a market worth exploring.”
Gilbert’s grandfather passed away in 2005. His grandmother — while semi-retired — has continued her involvement in the poultry industry. At 76 years of age Colleen supplies day-old chicks annually to Purina, Co-op and some Shur-Gain stores throughout the Atlantic region. “She still loads and drives the truck place-to-place with some help,” Gilbert proudly says. She’s known as “Mrs. Feathers”, so fittingly so too is her business name.
The Mrs. Feathers business ties in well with Grant’s Breeder Farm Ltd. Gilbert supplies hatching eggs and keeps a small flock of broiler breeders and exclusively sells these eggs to his grandmother.
Both Gilbert and Stacy are keen to involve their children in day-to-day farm life. Kara (8), Bradford (6), Cecily (4), Silas (2) and Soloman (6 months) lend a hand with chores like setting out baby chicks, rounding up cows and gathering eggs. Stacy draws from her education degree and French major to homeschool their kids.
The can-do, entrepreneurial spirit of Gilbert and Stacy is clearly carrying on in the younger generation. Oldest Kara has been putting her new sewing machine to use creating garments for her siblings, and Bradford is often awake and in rubber boots by 6 a.m. headed for the hen barn. He fills his own little cartons with eggs gathered from four hens he’s carefully selected and separated from his parents flock. Of course “he likes to top up his cartons with eggs from the other hens too,” laughs Gilbert. Bradford’s eggs are a hit with his special customers.
While the family is “happy where we are at right now,” Gilbert dreams of establishing a feed mill on site to meet the needs of the dairy, layers and pullets. He also hopes to grow his dairy quota to 60 kilograms, a size more sustainable and suited to potentially include a robotic milking system.
One thing Gilbert knows for certain: whatever moves they make “we’ll continue to invest in supply managed commodities.” It was a conscious decision made in 2006 after yet another frustrating year with the beef herd that resulted in being paid half of what they had invested in the product. “Never mind working for nothing,” says Gilbert, “but I have a problem when I start paying to work.”
He feels supply management gives every producer the same opportunity. “We’re paid the same, there’s a market for the product, I know what I’m getting paid so I can budget…it’s the only way to farm I believe.”