Our Work, Environment, Food
Intergenerational, regenerative farming: Shulist Family Farm in Combermere, Ontario
Curated by Jessica Lukaweicki
Storytellers: Halinka and Paul Shulist
November 18, 2021
When Halinka and Paul entered the farming business in the 1980’s, they had their work cut out for them. They had a vision of creating a sustainable, regenerative farming model that would support free range animals, organic vegetables and create healthy soils out of the 200 acres of land that Paul’s parents had bought in 1951 and passed down. Today, Shulist Family Farm is a thriving, intergenerational farm that grows organic produce, sustains a herd of about 70 cattle, 40 pigs, hundreds of chickens and 15 lambs, and yields other products like timber, fruit and maple syrup. I had an in-depth interview with family members Halinka, Paul and their son Staṡ where I learned about the values that led to this type of sustainable farming, the intergenerational nature and family dynamics of the farm, and some of the challenges they face as a small-scale farm in rural Ontario.
The farm, located in Combermere Ontario, uses rotating soil techniques – such as cover crops, crop rotation and utilizing livestock to fertilize fields – to yield healthy soils, animals that are free range and organically fed, and vegetables that are grown without the use of pesticides. The vegetables are grown on rotating fields that yield potatoes, sweet corn, lettuce, pumpkin, squash, beets, carrots and other small vegetables. As Paul explained, “Over the past 30 years, we as a family have spent time and the energy and money to recondition the farm and continue to build the soil in the fields through the practice of rotation and also adding a lot of compost to increase the organic matter. So, it all took time, but we are at a stage where we can definitely see the changes and the value not in terms of just dollars but the value of soil and production that comes from the land now.” Consequently, all of these practices help to keep more carbon dioxide in the soils, both enriching the soil and increasing its productivity while also helping in the fight against climate change.
All of the family members – including Staṡ’s wife, Natalie – are alumni of the University of Guelph, a university with strong roots in novel agricultural practices and sustainability sciences. Staṡ explains how it was a combination of his school in biological sciences, experience working as a land manager at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph, and the strong family values that he grew up with on the farm that garnered his interest in regenerative farming practices and factored into his decision to return home and slowly take over the farm under the guidance of his parents. “There were a lot of synergies in terms of moving back,” he explained. “Mom and Dad were organic farming from the beginning, or at least ecologically farming – farming with nature rather than against nature. And that was something we were raised with... to take care of the land, to protect and enhance the species and other animals and plants that call the farm home.” As Halinka elaborated, “Everything that we do revolves around making sure that it’s not going to damage, whether it’s the creek or the water source where the cows get their water. All of that has always been at the forefront from the beginning.”
Finding the right staff
The farm is primarily run by Halinka, Paul and Staṡ, with help from family members and hired seasonal staff (the farm now employs five staff every summer to help with harvesting work). Hiring the right seasonal staff is one of the major challenges the farm faces in terms of labour shortages – Paul explains that “One of the barriers that we have [for growth] is finding good summer help, young people that are willing to sweat a little bit.” Although they’ve been lucky over the years in terms of finding good help, it’s a challenge they’ve experienced for over a decade now, relying on programs like Canada Summer Jobs to fill the gap. In spite of these challenges, Halinka explains that “We’ve had some really great luck. They come to us maybe not having skills but they leave being very grateful because they’ve picked up a lot of skills. That’s part of our vision – to reach out and educate. It’s the youth that has to see the value in this [type of farming], and when they’re convinced it’s important… I think they’ll be our greatest promoters.” Paul reiterates this sentiment in stating that “We have to convince politicians that in order to keep farm workers you have to provide a decent farm wage and you have to provide a definite economic incentive for young people to want to farm.”
Their meat and produce are sold online, by word of mouth and at three farmers markets in the region. Since Staṡ and Natalie have moved back home with their four boys, parents Paul and Halinka explain how the farm has become more ‘tech savy’ – adding a new marketing component using platforms like Facebook and Instagram to promote the farm and its innovative practices. As Halinka explains, “That helps us reach our clientele a lot easier. It helps us to do it more on a regular daily basis instead of just seeing people at our farmers’ market.” The family holds in high regard the rapport they’ve built with some of their long-standing patrons and members of the community – “people really believe in what we’re doing with the family farm and local, organic, and they kind
of are our word of mouth.” The family also makes it a priority to give back to the community – working with Family & Children Services to do food baskets, donating pumpkins at Halloween. As Halinka elaborates, “We try to put ourselves out [there] as much as we can. Because we’re minded that way… we want to give back because we’ve been given to and allowed this wonderful lifestyle.”
Challenges with rural services
The family explained how during COVID-19, their sales have increased more than 30% - as Halinka articulated, “It seemed like last year after COVID people wanted meat in their freezers, they started to buy into the local meat market.” Paul went on to explain that in the last three years, the family has seen market and farmgate sales continue to rise – “the demand for what we do and what we provide has [continued] to increase dramatically. And I’ve said it sometimes over the years that I’ve waited 30 years for this to happen.” While growth in sales has been a positive development for the farm, it has not come without its challenges – such as the lack of infrastructure in the region. For instance, abattoirs in the area (slaughterhouses) have started booking at least a year in advance for their services. On this point, Halinka continued – “It’s infrastructure that is really a block for us to grow further… it’s something we have to work around.” It’s something the family has been trying to advocate on behalf of rural farmers – as part of the National Farmers’ Union, the Shulist family has been helping to put pressure on the Minister of Agriculture for Ontario to create more rural abattoir services. As Paul explained, “They are reluctant… it seems like they still want to centralize, and they don’t want to provide the services for small farms in rural areas. To me it doesn’t make any economic sense when you have to transport food. Ecologically it doesn’t make any sense as well.”
The future of the farm
Halinka, Paul and Staṡ all agree – farming is hard work, and it is a job that never quits. The farm itself is constantly changing and evolving, based on clients needs, climatic conditions and sheer curiosity. And some elements of the farm may change as Staṡ takes on more responsibility from his parents – although, as Paul jokes, “I’m not going anywhere fast – I want to be involved for as long as I can.” As a family, they are constantly finding ways to stay engaged and fully immersed in their work - as Paul articulated, “There was always an element of experimentation that keeps us interested in the farm, because a lot of it is just hard work. And maybe intense work. But if you have that element of experimentation there’s always a curiosity that’s wanting to be satisfied and is satisfied from year to year. But that’s how you build on your knowledge base.”
To learn more about the Shulist Family Farm, check out their social channels below!