21st Century Farming

Ryan Carroll and Trevor Riehl of Haywire Farm

by Mary Bailey with photos by Curtis Comeau Photography

Trevor Riehl (left) and Ryan Carroll at home on the range
Trevor Riehl (left) and Ryan Carroll at home on the range

If Old Macdonald had a farm today it might look like this—a Brown Swiss milk cow named Adelaide and a bottle-fed calf named Gertrude, both named after European royalty; two exuberant dogs (Ray and Leia, named, you guessed it, after Star Wars characters) guarding livestock, when they are not begging to play; various friendly barn cats, one with arresting topaz eyes; hens and chicks of the heritage varieties; several peacock, who wander about calling while displaying their stupendous trains, mostly to each other, as the demure pea hens cluster under the trees; several adorable lambs and their mums; a ram and a bull over yonder; two lively goats (Dolly and Bruno, after singers); a steer or two and two turkeys patrolling the yard, surrounded by fields of wheat, barley, oats, peas and garlic.

Trevor Riehl and Ryan Carroll took over Trevor’s grandparent’s farm near Leduc a few years ago. Both in health care, they realized they had an opportunity to help create the food system they desired—local, organic, holistic—on the family farm. They started with Katahdin lamb, eight ewes and one ram of unrelated genetics.

The rest came later, as they built this farm into a home with a picturesque old house, several barns and hen houses that look like guest cabins.

Quite a notion they had. Let’s leave secure well-paying jobs in health care and become organic farmers (hence the name Haywire). In an era when farms are becoming bigger and more specialized they choose to stay small and embrace diversification.

They are not alone. The idea that a farm has to be several sections to make a living is key if you want to grow commodity crops. But Trevor and Ryan, like other farmers today, are taking a different approach.

“My parents grew up farming with my grandparents,” says Trevor. “I was around the grain operation and we grew up with a garden and raising our own food, but I didn’t really understand the role of agriculture. I couldn’t get away from the farm fast enough,” he says.

“I moved to Ottawa for university, then UofA and started a career in health care project management.

“My mom was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 at 62. That was eye opening. People work their whole lives and save, then never get to enjoy any of it. I wondered; why am I doing this? What am I getting out of it, what’s best for me? I was looking at eating healthy, reducing stress, and doing what I’m passionate about. That led back to organics and the family farm.”
The timing was good.

“We had just lost quite a bit of money on a canola field which had failed. My Dad’s patience for farming was wearing. He was at the point; can’t get any worse. Why not try this organics thing?

“We made the case that a small farm could still be profitable due to how the organic market works.

“One of our values is reducing our carbon footprint. We practise no-till farming, and rotate cover crops, hay and cereal production. Livestock are key to an organic rotation. We compost the bedding and manure and return it to the field. Another important part is weed management under organics. Having a stand of hay cut twice a year is the only way to cut down on weeds like thistle.

“We struggled at first with the different rhythm of farming. All entrepreneurs feel like you should be working around the clock—you are really excited, so you want to work around the clock. But farming has a very different seasonal rhythm. We have gotten better at prioritizing and organizing what needs to happen and what we’d like to happen.

“My grandpa farmed until he was 92. I would watch him work, he never seemed hurried or rushed. He opened your eyes to what a man in his ‘90s can get done in a day. That helped us think about space and priorities.”

“We sell lamb online and the beef eventually. We sell the certified organic crops to a respected broker. We’ll have an on-farm store with eggs and strawberries and vegetables at some point, but we will have garlic for sale this fall.”

Looking back on the past six years? “It’s been an exciting journey and really good for my and Ryan’s relationship with my dad. He is very mechanical; keeps the machinery running. It’s been super fun watching my dad warm up to organics. Old timers want to see that perfect monoculture. Intentionally, we choose to make a mess.”

Mary Bailey is the editor of the Tomato. This is first in a series of stories on 21st century farmers.