Chris de Waal isn’t shy about the fact that there is “a bin full of guts” in the back of his car.
The contents of the large blue camping cooler in his trunk look like props for a horror film – a gelatinous maroon mass of kidneys and a cow’s liver as large as his chest with his initials carved in it. “That’s how the guys at the abattoir remember it’s mine,” he says with a smile.
de Waal, 35, is the face of Getaway Farms’ Butcher Shop, a fixture at the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market. But while he may be one of the business’ most visible partners, he is certainly not alone in the work. It’s a family affair.
Nearly ten years ago, de Waal’s father-in-law, Godfrey Poyser, lost his cattle farm in Alberta after the mad cow/BSE scare caused prices to drop. de Waal and his wife Leonie saw how dejected that loss left Poyser and hated seeing him that way. The two decided to seek out a new opportunity for their father, scouring ads across Canada for cattle farms for sale. Eventually, they saw one in Nova Scotia.
In May 2009, de Waal and Poyser travelled to Baxter’s Harbour, near Kentville, to see the farm in question. Ten days later the decision was made. Poyser stayed on in Nova Scotia while de Waal went back to Alberta to gather the rest of the clan.
de Waal knew nothing about farming at the time, let alone about raising cattle. He jokes that he was the kind of person who would have to change his shirt if he spilled water on it, and now he was facing a future ankle deep in manure.
But he knew he wouldn’t be facing it alone. Along with his wife Leonie and their three children, the de Waals would be moving east with Leonie’s mother Beverly, her brother Thom, and her 92-year-old grandfather.
Slowly but surely, Getaway Farm started to become what the family wanted it to be: a sustainable, grass-fed cattle operation. When Getaway started selling their meats at market in Halifax, de Waal realized that, “we were on to something” in terms of filling a need for local, sustainable meat.
On the retail side, things began to pick up exponentially and Getaway moved from the Historic Farmers’ Market in Brewery Square to the waterfront Seaport Market in 2010. More sales meant more work back at the farm, so the family put in a call back to Alberta. Soon Leonie’s sister and other brother also decided to make the move across the country to help the family make a go of it. The entire family, minus one sister, now lives within spitting distance of one another, working and eating together on a daily basis.
de Waal says this is precisely what makes Getaway succeed. “To farm well, it’s necessary that we have functioned like this,” he says. Being tied into the rhythms of each other’s lives is, he says, the recipe for success.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been hard times. “It’s not been easy,” he says, recalling. “sleepless nights and long days, arguments, disagreements… But we all get to celebrate and recreate together. When you do that with someone you live together with, you can’t help but be bound together.”
The other critical aspect of success, de Waal says, is connecting with community. To meet increasing demand for their beef, the family has started to purchase beef from other nearby farmers, which at first was a bit of a risk. But de Waal says it was a chance worth taking.
“If we do everything entirely, we are the only ones who benefit,” he says. “If we refuse to work with other people, then what good are we to the community, to Nova Scotian agriculture? Sure, it’s easier to do it yourself, because you control the variables. But when you trust your neighbours, everyone benefits.”
Simon Thibault is a food writer and journalist based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His food writing has appeared in The Globe And Mail, East Coast Living, Zester Daily, Passable.ca and The Coast.
This is the second in a series of articles on family farming in Atlantic Canada made possible by Wile’s Lake Farm Market. The first article focused on the importance of family farms to rural economies.