Welcome to Paradise
June 19, 2012
Luxury property developer Shane Baghai extends his ambitions – and his taste for excellence – to farming.
Drive north along Shaw’s Creek Road, just outside Erin, and you’ll know when you’ve come to Paradise.
Suddenly everything looks burnished. Not overly ostentatious, as country estates go, but brighter, straighter, tidier and newer than the norm.
This is Paradise Farms, where young spruce stand in perfect rows, the fences are not yet weathered, and the wide-open black gates are adorned with flower planters. Several immaculate green and white outbuildings surround the house, where workers are busily completing an addition – for entertaining.
Alongside a diversity of cattle and a dozen majestic Friesian and Thoroughbred horses, the surrounding yards and enclosures are populated by a menagerie: alpacas, sheep, peacocks, ducks, turkeys and heritage chickens, including Old English game bantams, Silkies and blue-egg-laying Ameraucanas. The whole effect, enriched by the sonic accompaniment of roosters and cows, produces a feeling like entering a children’s storybook, or a petting zoo.
But this is also the hub of a burgeoning agricultural business. A first-rate cattle operation built from scratch in just four years by Shane Baghai – a Toronto luxury home and condo developer with no previous experience in farming – into one of Ontario’s largest purveyors of “naturally raised” beef and one of North America’s foremost breeders of Black Angus cattle.
Today Baghai has about 2,000 head spread over the four farms he owns in Caledon and Erin, 400 acres in all, plus feedlots on five rented farms totalling 600 acres near Mount Forest.
You’ll find Paradise Farms’ melt-in-your-mouth steaks locally for sale at Carver’s Block in downtown Erin – which replaced its Alberta beef with Paradise Farms Angus to great response – or served at the Devil’s Pulpit golf club or Belfountain Inn, as well as at high-end grocers, butcher shops and restaurants from Toronto to Ottawa.
And there’s more to come. Baghai is talking about selling Paradise Farms beef through an eponymous burger chain, possibly 30 new outlets over the next five years, including one to be built on land he owns in Erin village, next door to Tim Hortons and East Wellington Medical Centre (whose properties he also owns). He projects it will open in early 2013.
I contacted Baghai to find out what the prolific developer and philanthropist was up to with farming, but also to flesh out the details of a grandiose, vaguely utopian plan hinted at on his company websites. It says that purchasing “farmland and lands for other uses” is just the “first step in their long-term, master plan for a brighter and healthier tomorrow,” which includes “land development, farming, both cattle and crop … windmills, solar farms and biogas facilities,” and “an example of an integrated urban development concept of farms and communities existing in harmony.”
The last time big money bought up Headwaters land waxing about sustainable agriculture and “other land uses,” the outcome was the reviled Melancthon mega quarry proposal. So I was thinking, Sure, Shane. You’re rich and you say you’re interested in farming, but what are you really up to?
This time though, the spin hides nothing. It’s just that Shane Baghai is a man who thinks, lives and talks in these kinds of visionary and idealistic terms. To understand how starting a hobby farm was a natural realization of his many passions, and to explain its meteoric growth into something much bigger, you have to know the man.
Baghai was born in 1949 in Hamadãn, Iran, the son of a transportation magnate. He was schooled in England from the age of 12, where he completed a mechanical engineering degree. After moving to Canada with a young family in 1973, he launched himself as a developer in one master stroke when he subdivided and flipped a million-dollar parcel in Thornhill with just $5,000 down.
By the 1980s, Baghai was one of the nation’s premier luxury home builders, reportedly averaging up to 50 new 1.5-million-dollar homes a year, orbiting around Toronto’s glitzy Bridle Path where his 36,000-square-foot mansion was said to be the largest private residence in the country. He later rode the condo boom, again zeroing in on his comfort zone: the “ultra-exclusive and chic.”
But he also gives back, donating more than a million dollars of his own over the years and fundraising millions more for hospitals and institutions like the University of Toronto, where he sponsors fellowships in one of his many passions, English literature.
Even as his development work grew more lavish, Baghai maintained an interest in lessening its environmental footprint. He recalls spending evenings and weekends studying sustainable technologies, like heat recovery ventilation and solar and wind power, which he later implemented before they became popular.
In 2007, the University of Windsor recognized his green achievements with an honorary doctorate. It was the same year his wife Marnie completed treatment for breast cancer, an event that helped launch his agrarian trajectory. When one of Marnie’s health-care providers recommended she stop eating beef to avoid the growth hormones, Baghai decided to grow it himself.
“I just wanted to prove a point that yes, indeed, beef can be healthy,” says Baghai. “I’m not an advocate of being a carnivore all the time, but meat is a very important part of our diet.”
As part of his environmental studies, he’d engaged in farming as a thought experiment. He wondered “if a family in a zero-carbon footprint house with some land attached to it could sustain itself fully.” Now he was prepared to attempt it himself. Besides, farming runs in the family. “My mom was a self-taught archeologist and historian,” says Baghai. “But also she loved nature and she had a dairy farm.”
Baghai purchased the property on Shaw’s Creek Road in 2008 and approached a third-generation Guelph cattleman named Rob Hasson to help him purchase a few cattle.
At the first Angus sale Baghai attended, he bought six, but for this man who early on replaced his given name Shahab with that of a character in a 1953 Hollywood western, it was love at first sight for the cattle business. Against Hasson’s advice, he called a contractor the next day to build a larger barn.
“I said it’s not for everybody. See what you think of it first,” recalls Hasson, who is now Baghai’s farm manager. “The barn you have is all you need.” But Baghai was determined.
Cattle auctions appealed to Baghai’s refined tastes, and to his collector’s impulse. He says, “I liked the fact that these animals came with a history, who the dame was, who the sire was and the bloodline, so I started attending most of the sales and, before you know it, I gathered some 100 or 150 animals. And they do multiply!”
Hasson estimates that Baghai’s breeding herd of 300 makes him “big for Ontario” – about ten times the size of an average cow-calf operation. And thanks to Hasson’s expertise, it boasts some of the finest genetics anywhere. Several Royal Agricultural Winter Fair champions graze its Erin pastures, including Bando, the Canadian champion Angus bull.
Baghai has also branched into three specialty breeds: rare Italian Chianinas, Scottish Highlands and Japanese Wagyu. A recent purchase gave him Ontario’s largest herd of Wagyu, at 300 head. The farm is also developing a herd of Charolais, dubbing the breeding line Charolais de Paradis.
Talking cattle brings out in Baghai a rare mix of erudite rancher and cosmopolitan gourmand. He proudly explains that the towering Chianinas are one of the oldest bovine breeds, dating from Virgil’s time. “If you go into a restaurant in Florence, probably the most expensive item on the menu would be Chianina bistecca.”
He gushes that the hardy Highland cattle, which range freely in his farm’s bush, are “Her Majesty’s favourite” (she keeps a herd at Balmoral) and produce the beef highest in Omega 3. And that Wagyu is the source of the also expensive Kobe beef, which can be so richly marbled it sometimes appears white.
Baghai has found an appetite for these high-end meats among the same clientele that buys his residences, a discriminating social stratum in which he has circulated all his life and intuitively understands.
“Think of this: If somebody wants to eat Chianina steak, why should they travel to Italy, or why should a package of meat travel 7,000 kilometres to come to Toronto?”
It’s a problem that had never occurred me, but it makes sense as an ultra-luxe approach to the 100-mile diet.
In fact the whole evolution of Paradise Farms makes sense when you read what Shane Baghai’s development company calls its “mantra”:
“Being at the forefront of design, quality and technology is the key to success and survival in any industry. Equally as important is the respect and loyalty obtained by surrounding oneself with a dedicated, capable and effective team.”
Paradise Farms is this mantra’s application outside the city’s margins. In this case, “design, quality and technology” refer to the genetic improvement of the herd, to the goal of efficiently raising healthy animals by “natural” means, and to the dedicated team, his farm manager Rob Hasson and other experienced staffers, whose respect and loyalty he indeed seems to have earned.
Hasson says he is so enthusiastic about working for Baghai he has cut back the work he does on his own farm in Guelph. Brad Mansfield, an old acquaintance of Hasson’s who also grew up cattle farming, came on board to help Baghai buy chickens, but soon joined full time. Originally from Sarnia, he now rents across the road, and the only downside to that isn’t really a downside.
Mansfield gets the occasional call from Shane to come over for small jobs after work, but “you know there’s going to be a drink poured for you and you’d better be ready to spend the evening.” He says Shane treats everyone as a friend and won’t tolerate being called “boss.” The day I visit, Baghai has brought in lunch for the whole staff, as well as the Mennonite builders.
So what of the master plan? It seems we’re looking at it. The grander residential development concept has evaporated.
“When I first bought the property, I was working on a concept where you could have residential development on large pieces of land where the house owner could also do some farming,” explains Baghai, as if recalling a long-ago time of heady idealism, though it was only four years ago. “When I came here and got into this business I quickly realized that maybe my concept is not quite practical in places like Caledon. And I don’t think that it’s practical on a large scale.” Such things are for the city planners to sort out with community input, he suggests. “Part of being an eccentric thinker is that you keep changing.”
Nor does the 62-year-old Baghai want to continue growing to become Canada’s largest cattle farmer. It would go against his vision.
“This is not a concept that can be really managed in a large scale. Too much care has to be given to these animals.”
The solar panels are already installed, feeding the grid from the roof of the main house. The wind turbine – a single, striking vertical axis model imported from Italy – helped power the farm until it was disabled in a spring windstorm. The biogas plans, conceived as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cattle, are still in the future.
The whole utopian dream is demonstration-scale. At heart, Paradise Farms is one man’s passion, an expression of his profound affection for this land and its animals. It’s just that the man in this case is a modern-day Midas whose every gesture produces something grand.
“I love farming, I have to tell you. I love building too. All my life I’ve been involved in construction, but honestly, practically every Thursday I can’t wait until my day’s over and I rush to the farm. That’s the truth. I truly believe that Caledon is one of the most beautiful spots on this planet.”
Paradise Farms, with its green pastures, its windmill and solar panels, its impeccably bred and well tended animals, is an experiment undertaken, as Baghai says, “to prove a point,” an example of food production and land management done right. He wanted it for his family, but happened to have the resources and the ambition to share it with others.
Paradise Farms is a big thinker’s articulation of farming’s possible future, a hopeful message in a world beset by urban sprawl and food insecurity. The message – if you will pardon it coming from an environmentalist who builds mansions – is that everything’s not just going to be okay, it’s going to be supremely beautiful. And also very, very tasty.