A small herd of black angus cows trot double-time to Don McHardie, once they realize he’s holding treats.
“The key to a cow’s heart is potatoes,” laughs McHardie, manager of the Alberg cattle feedlot in Gordon Head. “If they could, they’d sit here all day and eat potatoes.”
The cows grunt and shove to get a mouthful of a tasty ‘tater, and a break from mounds of haylage and grains. Newly arrived red angus cows stay at a cautious distance while mulling over the Garry oak meadow that is their new home. Now with 60 head of cattle on the property, the mix of manure and hay offers an unmistakable aroma of a working farm.
“I like the idea of being part of local food production. I worked in the retail end, in butcher shops for a number of years,” McHardie says. “When people look on packaged beef and it says ‘local organic beef,’ this is what local organic beef looks like.”
The five acre property at 516 Mount Douglas Cross Rd. has been a point of frustration for its owners – siblings Don and Gordon Alberg and Florence Davis – the municipality of Saanich and a few of the surrounding residential neighbours.
In past years, Saanich twice denied supporting the Albergs’ request to have the property removed from the provincial agricultural land reserve to have it rezoned for a residential neighbourhood. A majority of Saanich councillors didn’t support sacrificing farmland for housing.
The Albergs moved a few dozen cattle onto the property in February after Saanich quashed a plan for a poultry farm. Don Alberg said until the past week, the family had delayed bringing more cattle onto the property in anticipation of some movement from Saanich, but that has yet to come.
“We waited two-and-a-half months, but our business plan isn’t working. If we don’t have cattle coming in, that part that’s not working,” Don Alberg said. “A couple dozen head wasn’t a big impact (on the neighbourhood), but certainly 60 is going to be bigger, and 100 is going to be bigger still. We’re serious about this. That’s why we’ve brought this cattle in. We’re just moving forward with what we’re doing … and we’ll see how Saanich responds.”
Saanich, for its part, likely won’t do anything until a new rezoning request is submitted by the property owners. As it stands, the land is zoned for farming, is protected for agriculture, and raising livestock is an accepted farming use.
McHardie, a long-time family friend of the Albergs, is preparing the property for the long-haul. He and Don Alberg are constructing two more pens in the fields that stretch to Mount Douglas Cross Road (for a total of four large pens), another pen for transporting livestock in and out of the lot, and an alley pen for vaccinations and animal care.
“This is not a temporary thing. We’ve driven in at least 400 posts (for fencing) with the excavator,” McHardie said. “This farm could go on for a number of years. All this land was here sitting and doing nothing for so long, but it’s a farm and it has been since 1945.”
Residential homes back onto the feedlot, and McHardie said some neighbours remember the days when Vera Alberg kept a few black angus cows on the property. “Council wanted it to be a farm, so it’s a farm. It was here before all the houses.”
So far the Albergs have sold three of the cows originally brought to the property for meat. There’s a plan in the works to convert a room in the basement of the home on the property into to a freezer area, allowing the Albergs to sell the meat right from Gordon Head. Cows are taken to a government-inspected slaughterhouse up-Island.
“This may not be the way people envision local food, but you can’t grow vegetables here. It’s all rock,” McHardy said. “This is what local food looks like. It’s a good thing to have local food produced here.”
-with reporting from Edward Hill and Kyle Slavin