Rod Hadath stands – barefoot – in a pen of baby buffalo, nuzzling a brunette with budding horns.
His wife, Lauren, stands nearby, similarly dressed in a white T-shirt branded with their farm’s hops and horns logo, similarly beaming down at a blonde baby buffalo.
It’s a far cry from the life they’d been living in Niagara. And this, spending quality time with their growing herd, is something they rely on to ease the frustrations of establishing a new farming.
“The buffalo are just super cool,” Lauren says. “If you have a bad day, all you have to do is just go pet a buffalo and it makes you feel better. At the end of the day I think the buffalo probably save us most of the time.”
The couple bought Rod’s grandparents’ farm on Christian Road three years ago as a way to keep it in the family. At the time, they were living on six acres in the Niagara region, having migrated further and further from Hamilton, where they met. Lauren was working in human resources for a large manufacturing company. Rod traveled often as a specialized mechanic working with a French construction company.
It was meant to be a cottage. But then they added a single acre of hops – a way to help the farm be a little more self-sustaining, Rod says – and soon they were traveling from Niagara to The County almost weekly, to check on the house, cut the grass, weed the hops.
“The two lives got a little too much,” Rod says. “We did our flowcharts and this life won out. The path was a little straighter to the life we wanted.”
They’d been friends with Martin Littkemann and Lori Smith of Stirling’s Ontario Water Buffalo Company for years. It didn’t take much convincing before the Hadaths decided to give rearing water buffalo a try.
“There was no convincing,” Rod laughs, gesturing to a huge, framed photo of the couple atop one of the Stirling bulls – a photo snapped by Martin on their first visit.
“The first time we went there, they were such nice animals,” Lauren says.
“I was around beef cattle, and it was such a massive difference. I don’t know if it’s the respect for the animal that draws me to them, but they’re so big they could be absolutely miserable, but they’re so nice and they’re so affectionate,” Rod says.
“And we became obsessed with product,” Lauren adds. “The meat and cheese is so good, why not grow something we believe in? We love it. That’s all we eat.”
Today, the couple have six adult buffalo and seven babies. The idea is that they pasture at the Hadath’s farm and when they’re ready for market or milking, they head to Stirling.
Visitors are encouraged – the farm was set up with agri-tourism in mind. Rod found a vintage Land Cruiser that had been converted into a safari vehicle and that’s what he uses to take visitors bouncing down into the property, to the ponds where the buffalo spend their day cooling off.
They’ve got a bull named Julius – so gentle that a few scratches around his ears has him easing down to the ground, where he can slip off to dream land while being petted. The entire herd will usually decamp from the water on the promise of a bucket of grain and some love. Rod will happily help an adult visitor onto their backs, if you don’t mind the bristly hair and the caked mud.
Otherwise, the buffalo are happy to simply nudge and nuzzle visitors: they’re as gentle as massive dogs.
They sell buffalo meat and milk products from a store they’ve set up in their living room – a temporary solution until their house is built – and they’re eager for people to give water buffalo a try. Studies have shown water buffalo milk contains more calcium and protein than cow’s milk and its meat has more protein and less cholesterol than beef.
“We stand behind the product,” Rod says. “I’m sure we’re not even halfway through [learning] all the benefits of water buffalo over bovine.”
As they build their herd, Rod and Lauren are also building a house and growing a hops crop. This year, the house was framed and Rod has been working on the rest of the house construction, with advice from a cousin. He’s also been mapping out their hops fields and relying on Lauren’s muscle when she’s home at the end of a work day. (She works for Hastings County, supervising a group of administrators.)
“It’s been very busy, everything from doing fences to planting the plants, it’s just a constant learning curve,” Rod says. “Everything we do we have to do two or three times to try to get the right process.”
“We’re in a group with other hops farmers,” Lauren explains. “We all meet every two weeks, all the different hops farmers in the area, and talk about what every did, what we messed up. We’re trying to help each other because it’s not a competitive market at this point, it’s pretty unsaturated. Everyone’s really great about helping each other learn. You know, ‘I tried that, don’t do it.’ We always joke that we’ll get T-shirts: ‘Next year will be better.’ Because it’s a very hard crop to grow, very labour intensive.”
They were led into hops farming by research from Rod’s brother-in-law, who’s into The County’s craft brew scene. He couldn’t confirm whether the family farmstead had once been a hops yard, but two properties around it were.
“The County was a massive hops producer back in the day. It used to grow really well here, and we figured it might be again,” Lauren says.
For now, they’ve got two acres in, and another two planned.
Having Rod’s family in The County has been a boon.
“There’s no bad side to it,” he says.
“They’ve come and helped us plant. They’ve put in some gruelingly hot days in the hop field. Planting hops is pretty much everyone’s nightmare, especially when it’s 35 C with the no breeze down there,” Lauren says.
“Everybody likes the idea of working on the farm until they actually work on a farm and then, they’re like, ‘No way!’ And I understand that feeling!” Rod laughs.
Their advice to others chasing a agricultural-related dream is: Don’t give up.
“There’s a lot of hard days,” Lauren says.
“There’s a lot of bad and very few good and the apprenticeship for being a farmer is terrible,” Rod jokes.
“We’re learning from our mistakes as we go,” Lauren says.
“It helps if you’re partnered up or close with a farmer in that niche, to help with the good and the bad,” Rod says. “People around here, they’re very understanding. They’re a good push on the days when we get down on ourselves.”
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