My entire life, up until November last year, was dedicated to being a television journalist and anchor. Then, like so many of my colleagues I abruptly found myself unemployed. Since then, I have been working on re-inventing myself, and along the way have been learning from some of the best. Take Tammy Oakes and Dan O’Brien for instance, beef farmers and now culinary entrepreneurs.
When I headed out to their farm in Winchester, a tiny village an hour south of Ottawa, I had beef stew on my mind.
It was a cold, windy day when I turned into the driveway of their cheerful yellow farmhouse. Inside a bright, modern multi-purpose room, I found Tammy chopping vegetables for the stew in the kitchen while Dan looked on. Both were keeping an eye on a laptop monitor on the counter. I could just make out the image of a large cow in a stall.
“It’s calving time,” they tell me, and expectant moms could need help at any time, so cameras mounted in the barns provide 24-hour surveillance. While Dan pulled on his overalls to go to the barns, he tells me he only had two hours of sleep the night before, because a new calf was having trouble feeding and his protective mom wanted no help. He’s still concerned about the calf and I’m curious to see the new little one, so I head out with him.
I could hear mooing even before we arrived at the barn. Dan tells me the new mothers will let anyone within earshot know they are not happy to be in a pen; they want to be outside with their new calves.
“They’ve got incredible coats and love the cold air,” he says. “The calves are more sensitive which is why we put felt lined coats on them and ear muffs in to protect their ears.
There are at least three calves in the barn wearing protection from the cold. Most, like the calf Dan is concerned about, are lying in big beds of straw with their mothers standing over them. The O’Brien farm spends $125 a day on clean straw to make sure the cows are comfortable and warm and do not develop something call “tag” on their hides which wears away the hair, making it more difficult for them to stay warm. That little fact makes me happy because Dan obviously cares about his animals.
“I do, I like them,” he says, “each one has their own personality.” I have to ask if it’s hard to raise them for slaughter. Dan shrugs, “We all die eventually, but I make sure they are all well fed and comfortable every day of their life until the last. The slaughterhouse is only a 20-minute ride away. There is really no time for them to even get anxious,” he adds.
He believes the farm’s philosophy has convinced even those who do not eat meat that their product is humanely raised and harvested.
“That is important to today’s consumer,” he says.
They also wants beef without hormones or antibiotics. O’Brien’s farm uses neither on its herd.
“It’s not totally organic beef,” Dan cautions, “we do vaccinate; that is essential.”
Dan, who I guess is in his late fifties, strikes me as a man who doesn’t say a lot, but I can tell he is proud of his work. He’s a fourth generation beef farmer. His family operated along Stagecoach Road in Greely, which is now being eaten up by urban growth. He and Tammy moved the herd out to the property in Winchester nearly a decade ago. "It was more rural, " he says and it was affordable".
“Affordability is important,” Dan says, “especially after the hard times that came with Mad Cow Disease in 2003.”
The disease that affects a cow’s neurological system was traced back to an animal in Alberta but the scare that ensued devastated beef producers across Canada and closed the border to exports. Many small beef farmers in Eastern Ontario were forced out of business during Mad Cow because they couldn’t make any money selling their animals. Dan says he and Tammy are still here today because they saw an opportunity and seized it. Instead of giving up they chose to start producing the best local beef possible. The O’Briens' bought five breeding Simmentals which became the foundation for today’s herd of 130. With a serious investment made, the O’Briens started using technology to ensure a quality product. Three times a year their cattle have ultrasounds. It gives Dan an accurate breakdown of the various cuts and quality of beef on an animal and the right time for it to be harvested. After that is done, their beef is dry aged for 13 days.
“The big producers don’t do that,” Dan says, “it costs money but we believe it results in an even more tender cut.”
Dan and Tammy knew they were on the right track when a group called Savour Ottawa was established in 2008. It was a joint effort by Tourism Ottawa, Just Foods and the City of Ottawa. Eight local chefs approached the O'Brien's to buy their beef.
“It was the lifeline we needed,” Dan says. “That’s not to say being a beef producer today is easy. We’re still a small operation. Our major competition is Cargill and Costco. Marketing our beef is a full time job.”
Dan delivers his own product to Ottawa butchers, restaurants and some locally owned grocery stores. He also takes private orders.
“We’re struggling under a low Canadian dollar,” he says, “beef prices are sky high but we’re not making a fortune.”
To stay alive, Dan knew he had to diversify. The light bulb moment came in January when he sat down to enjoy a bowl of his wife’s tasty beef stew.
As we head back into the couple’s warm kitchen we're greeted by the wonderful aroma of beef stew. Tammy is stirring a large pot simmering on the stove. Tammy, who is from Alberta, tells me she wasn't much of a cook when she met Dan.
“He’s a meat and potatoes kind of guy. When I moved here, I had to learn how to cook. I called my mother all the time for help,” she laughs.
“But I eventually got better, even started to experiment with a beef stew because I know he loves it,” she says, “and our beef already has such flavour that I eventually hit on a winner.
Dan wholeheartedly agrees, “I was eating it three times a day,” he laughs. “It just occurred to me in January that if I loved it so much, so would others.”
And that is where the idea of mass producing the stew for sale in grocery stores was born.
“We approached Natural Gourmet, the host of a south Ottawa incubator kitchen,” Dan explains, “We’ve been working with them to duplicate Tammy’s recipe.”
Tammy adds it is not easy, “There is lot of experimentation. I’ve been weighing and measuring and calculating ingredients. We have to put everything on the label so it has to be exact. We’re up to three commercial test batches and I believe we have finally perfected it.
The couple can’t wait for O’Brien Farms Home Styled Beef Stew to be ready for consumers.
“I figure when we’re up and running, more than 50 pounds of stewing beef will be needed every week,” Dan says. “That doesn’t sound like a lot but with today’s margins, it’s significant for us.”
Dan and Tammy are excited and hopeful their stew will eventually be sold in more than one hundred Ottawa area grocery stores.
“I think we have a winner,” says Dan. “We’re providing convenience and a tasty product. It’s really the logical evolution in the life of our beef farm and it could mean the difference between profitability and just getting by.”
Tammy is quick to add she’s already working on a spaghetti sauce recipe they also hope will be sold in grocery stores.
As I sat down to enjoy a bowl of Tammy’s stew I realized there was a lot more to the simple story I had set out to tell. In among the chunks of savoury tender beef, the perfectly seasoned carrots, celery and potatoes the was a lesson in what it takes to survive in business in 2016. You have to be able to change with the times, not be afraid to dream and carve out a niche that will make you and your product unique. I left their kitchen feeling fortified; both by their ambitious drive and by the delicious stew now filling my belly. I was also happy to think that perhaps someday soon I would be able to include O'Brien's Home Style Beef Stew on my shopping list for my weekly grocery run.
Recipe for O'Brien Farm Homestyle Beef Stew
2 lbs O'Brien Farms stewing beef
Slight sprinkle of Montreal steak spice while browning
4 celery sticks diced
1 medium Spanish onion diced
1 X 900 ml carton Vegetable broth
1 X 900 ml carton beef broth
1 X 28 oz can diced tomatoes
6 small white potatoes peeled & diced
6 carrots diced
2 satchels of Bovril Bouillon
Thicken with ¼ cup flour
(613) 761-2403 OBRIENFARMS.CA DAN.OBRIEN@SYMPATICO.CA