In a valley northeast of Cache Creek, a couple has created an impressive livelihood selling free-range, grass-fed all-natural beef as a healthier alternative to products currently sold in today’s market. The pair live off-grid, 11 kilometres from the nearest power-line, and have developed successful partnerships with other local ranchers in an effort to maintain a sustainable business for themselves. Since 2010, they have built their client base from just a few hundred to approximately 1600 customers.
Their picturesque lifestyle is complete with two young children, a herd of cattle, and a beautiful property that is home to dogs, pigs, chickens, and even a lake. Back Valley Ranch may seem like the perfect country enterprise, but this year, owners Suzanna Fradette and Jerry Steves have been faced with plenty of challenges, including soaring production costs that have forced them to make some tough decisions.
“With ranching, you’re never really fully stable,” said Fradette. “We’ve gotten to the point over the last few years where we’ve been able to just do the sales. But by next year we’re probably going to be taking on side jobs again.”
In the span of three years, the ranching couple has experienced success, but the road has gotten bumpy lately.
Previously, both Fradette and her partner Steves were working regular jobs to supplement their income at the ranch. In the past, they have been able to support their family through the sale of organic beef, but within the next year, Fradette believes that will change.
“The cost of production has just gone up so much,” she said. In the past year, Fradette and Steves chose to follow the advice of their peers, reluctantly raising their prices to match the costs of expenses. As Fradette expected, that choice had its own implications.
“It’s hit a tipping point now where we’ve raised our prices again, then sales just dropped,” she said. “One of the most frustrating things is there are people out there with small little hobby farms where they’re selling below the [market] price and they can’t even cover their costs. They’re not making any money. We can’t afford to do that. We are fairly high production. We’re not commercial but we’re not a small little hobby farm, we’re kind of in-between.”
This year, the family paid $800 more to process just seven head of cattle than what they paid to process nine head in 2017. Hay prices have also risen dramatically, said Fradette, and so has the cost of fuel.
“We get it. People need to make a living. It hasn’t been easy for anyone lately,” she wrote in a Facebook post to the ranch’s followers in early July, when the family announced they would be cutting back their herd and making changes.
“It is really hard. All it takes is for one thing to go wrong and it can mess up your entire year.”
The pair have partnered with other ranches in the past, including Maiden Creek Ranch just south of Clinton and Silverspring Ranch, near Savona, but that’s where things have been changing, said Fradette.
“As of this year, we’ve had to drop our final partner ranch. We can’t afford to pay them auction price and then pay the butcher. We’re just not making anything.”
In the summer, the cattle at Back Valley Ranch graze on 18,000 acres of crown rangelands adjacent to the property, but in the winter, the family spends a little over $350 a day feeding their herd. In a year, they spend around $50,000 on hay.
“Our cattle need to actually gain on the hay in the wintertime,” said Fradette, noting the family’s neighbour is actually their main supplier. In the fall, the couple walk their cattle the 25 kilometres to their neighbour’s property, where they pay for the herd to graze right there on the hayfield.
“They’re good until about the beginning of January before we have to start to feed them. Then, instead of bringing the cows home and hauling all that hay home, we just leave them there and feed them right on the hayfield. It would take a lot of extra money and resources to try to bring all that hay up here,” she explained. Additionally, the agreement saves their pastures from getting roughed up by the cattle.
Back Valley Ranch has about 48 cows, plus calves and yearlings. Herd numbers fluctuate, said Fradette, as the family doesn’t butcher all at once, but in groups of ten at a time throughout the year.
Ranching is in Steves’ blood, and he even graduated from Vancouver’s University of British Columbia with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Agriculture, where he learned about production, marketing, and the science behind the career he’s chosen.
“All the practical stuff you learn by farming,” he noted, “From the hands-on experience.”
Steves was three years old when his father purchased Back Valley Ranch, so he spent many childhood summers and weekends on the property. His parents are now in their eighties, but still feed cattle and clean pens by hand each day on their own ranch in Steveston.
The Steves family bought Back Valley Ranch in 1976, and Harold Steves, Jerry’s father, was a co-founder of the Agricultural Land Reserve. In 2006, 40 years later, Steves bought the ranch from his parents and uncle. He got to work establishing a profitable business from the family legacy, using direct marketing to bring organic beef to the public.
Business was great, but times have been more challenging recently, and the family anticipates they’ll drop their herd numbers as well as their partner ranches within the next year while they transition to processing pre-sold orders only.
“We were doing up to nine runs of 10 head per year. We will pretty much drop in half what we’ve been doing. We will do four runs with cattle per year and still do one run with the pigs.”
Fradette said the family has already committed to buying cattle this year from the first ranch they partnered with, but beyond honouring that commitment, they will be making a lot of changes.
That includes more tough choices, such as considering the loss of cattle that have been in their herd for many years.
One of their oldest cows is approaching 30 years of age. Previously, with older animals, the family might decide to give them another year, said Fradette, but now, they’ve got to cut back.
“It sucks,” she admitted. “I’d say almost half our herd is over the age of 15. We’ve never gone by age, we go by how the cow is doing and how the calf is doing.”
Most ranches put cattle on the cull list after a certain age, she said.
Despite the challenges they are currently faced with, Fradette and Steves are determined to evolve their business and continue providing organic grass-raised beef to their clients.
“We will carry on doing what we are doing,” said Fradette. “It will just be on a smaller scale next year.”