P.E.I. farm family steering in the right direction

Mary MacKay
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The Drakes’ Steerman’s Quality Meats business and farm in Vernon Bridge has adapted to the agricultural times for generations

The Drake family has been steering in the right farming direction now for generations.

In fact, adapting to the times has been the only way to keep up with the ever-changing pace and face of the agricultural industry.

“You have to do it all. You have to grow it. You have to move it. And we’re lucky we’re able to do it,” says Debbie Drake from their onsite Steerman’s Quality Meats shop on their Drake Road farm in Vernon Bridge.

“You’ve got to make a lot of changes if you’re going to suit today’s customer,” adds her husband, Scott Drake, who comes from a family of farmers and butchers.

The original farmstead purchased by his great-grandfather in the early 1900s was 80 acres. Scott’s father expanded to more than 400 acres, which was bequeathed to his three sons, who in turn built up their individual acreages from there.

“Each generation kind of builds on (what they have) because you have to build it for the next generation,” says Scott, who now has 400 acres to call his own.

“This was my grandparents’ home. I grew up next door,” Scott smiles from the cozy farmhouse where he and Debbie, who were married in 1995, have raised their two children, Matthias, 17, and 16-year-old Kelly.

“The farthest I ever moved from home was out to the mini home at the end of the road. Then three years later I moved back in the road. Not too adventurous I guess,” he laughs.

Farming has always been a way of life for Scott. But prior to going into it full time at home in 1985, as an eager teen entrepreneur he started a weekly garbage disposal business, which he built from 16 customers to 100 at its peak.

“I like dealing with people and (it’s) probably where I learned a lot of my people skills,” says Scott, who started farming full time at home in 1985, raising beef cattle and hogs as well as growing turnips, hay, grass silage and grains.

In 1992, Steerman’s Quality Meats came into being when he started moving into the food service sector and doing more household accounts in response to the closure of meat packing plants: first in Moncton and eventually Charlottetown.

“My grandfather was the first butcher (in the family). Years ago that went hand in hand (with a family farm). Then my dad butchered with my grandfather but they quit butchering in the early 1970s,” Scott remembers.

“At that time the farms were getting larger and larger and the little provincial inspected abattoirs were being phased out. It was also just at the start of the supermarkets — K-mart food would be the first one — and then as those supermarkets started growing they started wanting to buy larger quantities from federally inspected plants and not wanting to buy from a little meat shop.”

The addition of an on-farm cutting room — the butchering is still professionally done off site — allows Scott to control the quality of cuts that he provides to his customers.

“I wanted portion control cuts. I wanted to fuss over it to have it trimmed just so and presentable for the consumer because the consumer I was trying to sell to was a restaurant that wanted portion control, or was a consumer that was used to seeing it in a nice lighted showcase on a nice white tray, not just cut and fired into a bag,” he says.

Building a strong customer base took years of hard work.

“Whenever this whole buy local, buy P.E.I. thing caught on, I had 10 years under my belt,’” Scott says.

“I had already evolved quite a bit and then this (consumer trend) just landed in my lap. It was just basically candy to a kid then because we’d had a lot of the groundwork done because there was a lot of learning lessons in those first 10 years: how the consumer expects things; how they perceive things to be, I had to learn all that. And then when you got into the food service there was a lot of lessons to learn there.”

One of the biggest lessons was how to price the product.

“When you purchase a side of beef, you are charged the dressed weight of that side of carcass in the cooler.

“As the meat is cut into meal portions, some bone and fat is discarded making up the difference in weight,” he says.

“Now it’s more like a $100 box and I let the customers pick the cuts that they want. Having said that I had to have the business to a size where I had different customers to utilize the whole animal. Some clients they want blade roast, shank and hamburger, they don’t want the (more costly) cuts.

The very first food service order for Steerman’s Quality Meats was for steaks for a tournament at the nearby Avondale Golf Course.

“The owner had eaten our meat and liked it, so that was our ticket in.

“In P.E.I. business, you’ve got to have a personal connection . . . . If you have a little in like that it’s half the battle . . . ,” Scott says.

“The restaurants especially (have also changed in recent years). They’re big on buying local because of the way tourism is geared now . . . . People who come to P.E.I. now want to try our shellfish, our meats, our vegetables — anything that’s different from home.

“So if you can provide them with a unique product that they like, then they’ll tell others and others will come.”

Now on the cusp of his 18th birthday and headed for the faculty of agriculture at Dalhousie University in Truro, N.S., this fall, Matthias is a fifth-generation farmer in training.

He was just nine years old when he started his personal poultry business after a neighbour brought home some baby chicks and then decided that the food-raising route was not for her.

He now raises hundreds

of chickens year round and turkeys for the seasonal Thanksgiving and Christmas markets as well as sells wood shavings to local farmers.

“When people hear I’m going to agricultural college, they look at me and say, ‘Why are you doing that. All you have to do is farm.’ But you have to be fairly smart to farm nowadays. You have to know the business side of it — keep the books straight — and the science part of it too — what to plant and what to apply, how much — to get the top productivity out of that product or that animal.”

For Matthias, farming is not just a career it’s in the blood.

“I was born and raised on the farm. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. I will live and die on the farm.”

 

AT A GLANCE

Fast facts

Steerman’s Quality Meats at 131 Drake Rd., Vernon Bridge, is located on the family farm that is home to Scott and Debbie and their children Matthias and Kelly.

The first section of land in the area was purchased by Scott’s great-grandfather. His father and grandfather were butchers and farmers.

In 1985, he started farming full time at home, raising beef cattle, hogs and growing turnips, hay, grass silage and grains.

As a cattle and hog producer in 1992 Scott started selling meat by household freezer orders and in 1998 the business was expanded to food service meats.

In 2004 Matthias started raising chickens and turkeys. Check out http://www.theguardian.pe.ca/Business/2009-04-11/article-1293297/Poultry-panache/1to read about this young entrepreneur

At present the Drakes continue to operate a mixed farm of 300 head cattle, 100 hogs, 200 turkeys, 300 chickens, growing grains and forages on 400-plus acres of land.

The majority of meat products is now sold through Steerman’s Quality Meats.

For more information visit their Facebook page or www.steermansqualitymeats.com.

Organizations: K-mart, Dalhousie University

Geographic location: P.E.I., Vernon Bridge, Drake Road Moncton Charlottetown Truro

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