Building Topsoil and Community Through Regenerative Farming
When Jillian and Brett Byers consider the daily routines on their farm in Blue Ridge, Alberta, they’re looking toward the future while focusing on the day-to-day needs of their family, animals, and the local community. Parents to four children — Ellery, Cohen, Branson, and Russell — they’re thinking about what they are leaving behind for their kids and the shape the planet will be in for the next generation.
Thanks in part to the regenerative practices they use in their operation, Blue Ridge Farms is one of the winners of the 2022 Alltech Canada Planet of Plenty Award. Jillian says the family is thrilled to be a recipient of the award.
“There’s been a lot of great support from our community, (our) county and lots of members of the industry reaching out” she says.
The Byers manage a 400-head cow-calf herd, using regenerative farming practices to build up the topsoil on their land to produce a healthy pasture of grass. They also have pastured pigs, chickens, and turkeys.
“If you don’t have grass, you can’t graze your animals,” Jillian says.
Jillian believes this is a hard lesson many people learned last year with the drought conditions that took a bite out of the amount of hay and grass available to producers. She says focusing on building topsoil helps the land hold water — “making sure the land is really healthy, vibrant and working for us and with us” she adds.
To do that, they aerate the soil using chicken and turkey tractors.
“They scratch through the cow manure, they eat up all the bugs, and they kind of aerate the soil and then when it rains, that rain and that water goes right deep down into the earth,” Jillian says.
According to Jillian, these practices have allowed them to take land with zero topsoil and turn it into a thriving parcel with six inches of organic matter.
“It’s holding water like you wouldn’t believe.” she says.
Reaping generational knowledge
Sustainability is also about passing down knowledge. The Byers have been able to draw on the experience of their fathers to help build their operation. Brett’s father, Dr. Les Byers, is a veterinarian. He brings with him a wealth of knowledge, particularly during calving season. Jillian says her father, Barry Trebilcock, a dairy farmer who was big on rotational grazing, always talks about seeding different things like turnips because they have a direct seed drill.
“We have played around a bit with that, planting some really neat types of grass and legumes, as well as turnips and radishes, which really break the soil apart, which allows that water to go in.” Jillian says.
Brett and Jillian have taken the knowledge passed down from their fathers to create intense land management practices, including their own rotational grazing system.
Feeding their community
The sustainability of the Byers’ operation goes beyond the management of the soil and the way they raise their animals. They also help feed their community.
For years, Jillian sold the meat they produced at a farmer’s market in St. Albert, but the 90-minute commute, combined with their growing family, made her think about other options.
Ultimately, an instructor from a marketing class Jillian was taking encouraged her and her family to go it alone and set up their own farm store. As a result, the family bought a small building from a nearby auction and moved it to the farm. It took a year before they were ready to welcome their first customer, but that didn’t deter the Byers. They started the farm store in their garage until the permanent location was ready.
The dream fully came into realization during Alberta Open Farm Days, a province-wide event during which people are encouraged to visit participating farms. The Byers opened their doors during the event and saw 400 people come through their small store. They haven't looked back since.
The Byers sell beef, poultry, pork, and goods from other local and provincial vendors. Their one-room building is packed with products, including sourdough bread, hot sauces, hemp seed, home décor, preserves, coffee, and more.
“It’s really neat because we have been able to meet other local businesses and support them, and they are supporting us,” Jillian says. “It’s just a real feel-good operation.”
Just like they built up the topsoil on their land, the Byers have built an operation that will carry them, their children, and their community into the future. The key to making this all work is ensuring that the land is healthy, vibrant, and working for and with them.
Written by: Craig Lester
To hear more from Jillian, listen to another audio interview she did with Chuck Zimmerman while she attended this year's Alltech ONE Conference. https://traffic.libsyn.com/zimmcomm/alltech-22-jillian-byers-plenty-winner.mp3