Spirit View Ranch: Caterer talks to beef farmers

Caterer talks to the beef farmers, Erika and Christoph Weder, from Canada

Erika and Christoph Weder
Erika and Christoph Weder

Devina Divecha met Christoph and Erika Weder when they visited the UAE, and discovered their passion for providing quality beef in the most natural way possible

Tell us more about Spirit View Ranch?
Christoph Weder: After selling a farm and backpacking around the world after we got married, it really solidified the idea that when we get back to farming and ranching, we really need to think global but act local in how we look after our land. It also fell into place that if we were going to look after the land, we should also produce a product that we’re very proud of and which fits in with our philosophy.

The year we started our new ranch (in 2001), it also happened to be the first BSE case in Canada. Canada exports 70% of the beef it produces, either in the form of beef or live cattle into the United States. We decided that we needed to create a differentiated product, and the first idea was to produce meat without hormones and antibiotics, because people were starting to ask for it.

But then over time it morphed — beef is a luxury item and we need to create it with all the steps in place so it has great flavour and tenderness, but not just that alone... it’s how it’s produced and the story behind it.

How did you approach it differently?
Christoph:We decided that instead of selling the cattle into the normal market like everybody else does, let’s own it to the end. So we went down that path, not knowing what we were going into. Over time, we picked up ideas, went to food shows, watched what people were doing, talked to chefs and retailers, listened to the customer, and figured out how can we do it and improve it.

It started with no hormones, no antibiotics, and then we decided we’re going to make sure the cattle are Angus because people already perceive Angus as being a premium product. We tied it to sustainable agricultural practices, animal welfare, and transportation and so on.

How big is the area you take care of?
Christoph: We have three farms now, so combined more than 45,000 acres — it’s a lot.

Erika Weder: We bought a lot of land that was absolutely abused over the years, with all the pesticides, herbicides. It was rewarding to transform really sick land into something healthy.

Christoph: One thing really unique about beef, or lamb: it can co-exist very nicely with nature. If you’re really smart about ranching, the more you work with nature, the better off you are economically. If you were to convert that land to a crop production system, like growing canola, wheat, barley, soybeans, it’s a monoculture.

You spray against insects, you drain wetlands, you take down trees. But we want to keep that natural and enhance it. That’s what’s actually even more fun: we’ve created a really cool food product, but at the same time we’re not adversely affecting nature.

We know that our land is better than when we took over. I don’t have to look at myself in the mirror and feel bad, because what we’re doing is improving and sustaining it. There is more biodiversity on our ranches than in a lot of national parks. The beef industry always gets beat up about how it is so bad environmentally, but livestock grazing systems are the most sustainable, if done correctly.

Where are you selling your product right now, in this region and beyond?
Christoph: We sell through Praire Halal Foods to bring the beef into the UAE. We also sell to Switzerland and Europe, markets like Vancouver, Toronto and higher end retailers in Canada.

What is your size in terms of cattle?
Christoph: We have 2000 mother cows, and those mother cows will produce a calf every year. If you come to the ranch in a month, there will be upwards of 80 to 100 calves born a day. We have around 1800 production animals a year.

What challenges do you face as sustainable producers?
Erika: People. At the Alberta ranch, where we lived for about 10 years, we got comments about how we are wasting our land. We were buying land from neighbours, and [they said] it was grain farm, and it was farmed for the last 20-30 years, and now we were wasting it by restoring wetland.

Christoph: In agriculture, production is your status symbol, so if you’re not producing the max out of the land, [they think] you’re not a very good farmer. We’re the opposite, where we want to reduce the amount of the equipment used, work with nature, let the cows do the work. Intensive agriculture is perceived as being “real agriculture”.
Erika: When we say that we ranch, people ask if we grain farm. We say no, and they say we’re not really farming.

Christoph: The difficulty with that is in the agricultural community you’ll be ostracised for doing things like we do. Do you know, 75% of the antibiotics produced in North America are used for livestock production, not for the treatment of sick animals, but fed because it improves feed efficiency and you can stuff all the animals in this one small area?

What is your plan for the next five years?
Erika: Restore more land.

Christoph: It’s sort of like some people taking old cars and restoring them — we like buying properties that are undermanaged and abused and tweaking them and just like a chef, throw a little spice into it and all of a sudden see what you can cook up out of it.

Erika: It’s almost an addiction. On the property in Alberta we’ve now restored 150 wetlands and it’s really something.

A chef’s perspective
Lafayette Gourmet culinary director Russell Impiazzi says he supports the work of Spirit View Ranch. He comments: “When I went to Canada a couple of years ago, we met for the first time and it was just perfect — working with nature to produce something that’s very natural — and the quality is excellent.

There’s no point going to all this trouble if the actual end product isn’t very good ... but the end product is excellent, so it just works. It’s a message we should be working more on — to get away from mass, commercialised produce, feeding lots and all that rubbish, and go back to working with guys like him.”

The supplier’s perspective
Praire Halal Foods general manager, and Simply Gourmet operations manager Wael Kandil, brings the beef product from Spirit View Ranch into the local market. He says: “The programme is very impressive.

It’s not only that it tastes very good — there’s a great story behind it. We got to know each other very well and we talked about alternative markets to those traditionally encountered in the US, and we had the idea to develop the halal market for this market for this product, so that’s when we actually formed the company together — it was them and few other producers — to come here and market that product here.”

He says the market has grown although it is very competitive, and all comes down to price. “It was 2008 when we came into this market. Unfortunately it was when everything was collapsing, and we brought a new product that was more expensive, so it was very slow. But again, chefs like Russell (Impiazzi) appreciate the product.

Russell is a very big fan, a very big supporter, and that’s the thing we rely upon in the market here — that they understand the value of this product. It’s not about price or about how glitzy or marbled it is; it’s about the story behind it, and before that, the taste.”

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