GLENCOE — Retirement just isn’t Stewart Simpson’s style. The 91-year-old bought 11 rare breed cattle and has set out on a mission to make them the cornerstone of Canada’s burgeoning grass-fed beef industry.
“It’s sort of my last kick at the can,” says the Glencoe farmer, who lives alone at Old River Farm, a 243-acre farm straddling the Thames River. “It’s in my blood. I was born on a farm and it was the only thing I wanted to do.”
There are only a few North Devon cattle in Canada, but Simpson has never been afraid to launch into the unknown. He owned the first wheeled disc in Ontario in the 1950s, the first 10,000-bird flat-deck cage system in 1963, and the first soybean roaster in 1970.
“I guess I was kind of an originator of ideas,” he says. Simpson was born in 1921 — the year of the first baseball game broadcast on radio and when Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize in physics. But he’s well into the modern age, with a cell phone and an Internet connection.
For most of his life, Simpson was an egg farmer, owning as many as 30,000 layers. He was doing chores by five and was only 13 when he quit school to farm.
When he was a teenager, Pennies from Heaven and Blue Moon were radio hits, Grapes of Wrath debuted on the big screen, and Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds was conjuring up fears of an alien invasion.
Growing up, his family used horses to farm and went into town with a horse and buggy. He remembers when that changed.
“I got the nerve up one night to ask my dad if we could buy a tractor,” Simpson recalls. In 1943, a Farmall H — which cost $1,005, a pretty penny at the time — arrived on the farm. “It had steel wheels because rubber was scarce during the war.”
After the Second World War, his brother took over the home farm. In 1948, Simpson struck out on his own, buying his uncle’s 100-acre farm for $60 per acre, and began building chicken barns.
After a lifetime in the egg business that included battling the quota system all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, he handed over the reins to his son, just over a decade ago.
About that time, Simpson started reading Acres U.S.A., an organic farm magazine. That’s where he first heard about Gerald Fry, an Arkansas beef farmer known for a back-to-basics philosophy on genetics, and his attempt to revive a small, now-rare breed of beef cattle called North Devon, which originated in Europe and fatten on grass.
Simpson heard opportunity knocking. “I thought, ‘what else is there left to do?’ I don’t even like the sound of the words ‘nursing home,’” says Simpson, who asked Fry to put together a small herd. Ten pregnant cows and a bull arrived on his farm in November and December 2011.
Life moves at a slower pace now, with Simpson living in a heated apartment above a shop he built. But he’s in near-perfect health. “My eyesight is not so great and I can’t jump around like I used to. When I’m getting on and off the tractor, I have to be more careful. But I’m still going,” he says.
These days, he reads a lot but still spends a couple hours feeding hay to his 21 head of cattle, which live outside year-round. Up until February, he was using a pitchfork, but with a new Hustler bale feeder he can now load a round bale and shave off hay into piles without leaving the heated cab of his tractor. A neighbour is on call at calving but Simpson cuts and rakes all his own hay, hiring out the baling. His 22- and 24-year-old grandsons, who now run the family egg business, are just down the road and recently helped him seed 26 acres.
Simpson aims to have a 35- to 40-cow breeding herd, stocked with top quality genetics, to sell to commercial beef farmers who want to tap into a growing grass-fed beef craze.
“It’s a pretty ambitious undertaking for an old fella like me,” he says, especially because it’s a long-term project. While he’s already had inquiries, he has nothing to sell yet. With three years between generations, it’ll be some time before his herd puts meat on Canadian tables — a goal he’s passionate about, emphasizing that farming is at a crossroads that could see organic take off.
“I wish I was even 10 years younger. There’s going to be such a change in the world,” he says. Simpson is determined to see his current project outlive him. That’s why he has a partner, Steve Jones, a sheep and cattle breeder and his former neighbour. Jones, who lives in England and visits a few times a year, will handle promotions. Simpson is in the process of incorporating the project.
“It’s a big job and I’ve got to have help. The good Lord only gave me two hands and I need three,” he jokes. “When I’m ashes, it’ll carry on.”