Lyons family: Five hundred kids and growing
Goats are notorious sorting animals. They’d pick through and find the one grain they like, forgetting about everything else they need to be healthy.
Thirty-three-year-old dairy goat farmer Jason Lyons admits, “When people know that I’m Dave Lyons’ son, it helps me a bit.” His father has been a Caledon councillor, on the executive member of Peel Federation of Agriculture and an activist on behalf of agriculture in the GTA. And the family roots run deep in the community. The Lyons family has been farming at Lyonsdale Farms near Cheltenham for 179 years, ever since they arrived from Ireland in 1835. John Lyons, Jason’s grandfather, helped start the agricultural federation’s Farmer of the Year Award back in the 1980s.
However, while the family name may open doors for Jason, it isn’t what keeps him in the room. “I work hard every day and I’ve earned where I am.” Still, he acknowledges commitment and hard work aren’t enough. He could not have started his operation, Escarpment’s Edge Dairy Goats, without the support of his father and his uncle Don Lyons. “If you don’t have backing, the banks won’t look at you.”
The costs of getting into farming from scratch are considerable and while Jason made a substantial investment in his business startup, he had to borrow several times that amount to get it going.
He could have started with more mature goats and more of them, allowing him to generate income faster. But that would have required an even larger upfront investment, and he didn’t want to compromise on genetics.
So it’s taking him a bit longer, but the wait is starting to pay off. “I’m almost double the provincial average for goat milk production because I’ve made good investments in genetics and started with decent animals.”
Along with genetics, Jason has focused on his animals’ nutrition. “My biggest bill is my feed bill,” he says. “Goats are notorious sorting animals. They’d pick through and find the one grain they like, forgetting about everything else they need to be healthy. So you have to buy the feed. You can’t grow it yourself.”
But farming is anything but predictable, even for the most conscientious – as last winter proved. Typically, says Jason, a goat farmer can expect to lose 3 or 4 per cent of the kid crop, but this year a parasite called Cryptosporidiosis claimed 30 per cent of his kids. “It’s one of the hardest bugs to keep from spreading. It hits the babies when they are only seven to ten days old, and either you get them through it or they just give up.”
Some days Jason was afraid to go into the barn, worried about what he was going to find. “That’s the reality of this business. You’re a slave to your job, but if you look at it that way, you’re doomed.”
Jason started his operation with 100goats. Today he is milking 400 and since February has overseen the birth of 500 babies (about half of them male, which are sold to the meat market). He needs about 500 milk-producing goats before he can start saving for the future. For now, everything he makes goes back into the business.
In spite of the family history, farming wasn’t necessarily a shoe-in choice for Jason. Growing up, he was the only farmer among his friends. Everybody else had part-time jobs and slept in on weekends. That looked mighty appealing when he was 18, and that was when his father introduced him to some neighbours up the road who were looking for someone to help fix cars.
Jason jumped at the chance, and the after-school job became an apprenticeship and then a well-paid career as a licensed auto mechanic. But after eight years the grind started to get to him.
“The shop where I worked was full of decent, honest guys, but mechanics get a bad rap.” Jason found himself getting tired of driving in the chaos of Brampton every day to a job where clients didn’t trust whom they hired. “People would come in and tell me how to fix their cars.”
By then his father had sold his dairy quota, rightly convinced there was no interest in the business among his or his brother’s children. As Sean puts it, “I just didn’t enjoy the cows that much. Cows will mess when you milk them, with big blobs of poop that splatter all over the place and you get a mouthful of it.” It was his dad who suggested Jason consider goat farming.
Jason was intrigued, but since neither he nor his father had any practical experience with goats, Dave called up a friend and asked for a tour. The friend, Bruce Vandenberg, runs a fair-sized operation near Lindsay. He not only happily agreed to the visit, but hired Jason when he called a few weeks later to ask for a job, eager to learn goat farming from the ground up.
Jason quickly discovered that he really enjoyed the work – “A goat has ten times the personality of a cow” – but missed being home, close to friends and family. Within two and a half years Bruce was offering Jason a partnership, but the call of the family farm was too strong.
It got even stronger when his cousin Richard introduced him to Kelly, a schoolteacher involved with his recreational baseball league. Five years ago, Kelly could not have imagined herself working on a farm, “but here she is,” says Jason of the woman he married this summer. Every once in a while Kelly takes the morning chores so Jason can sleep in, and for now she is the breadwinner. But Jason hopes to change that over the next couple of years and is quick to give her credit for her involvement on the farm.
Now the seventh generation to farm at Lyonsdale, Jason brought a hundred of Bruce’s kids home with him, along with a multiyear agreement ensuring a steady customer for his milk, as long as the milk came from those goats and their offspring. If you have tried Celebrity goat cheese in the past year, there’s a good chance it includes milk from Escarpment’s Edge goats.
Jason is a director of Ontario Goat, the breeders’ association, and he’s optimistic about the future of the industry, quoting statistics that it has grown from $30 million to $40 million in two and a half years. His cousin Richard, 23, has started Caledon Lamb Co, producing naturally raised lambs. His father has given up the cows, but still helps out with his uncle’s cash crop business. Although they all have separate business interests, Jason says the family ties remain strong. “We all work together on the same land, always ready to give each other a hand.”
Their crops include oats they sell themselves and a 30-acre field of sunflowers they harvest and sell for birdseed.
Sheldon Creek’s whole milk is sold in traditional glass bottles with a plug of cream on top. They also sell chocolate milk, strawberry milk and eggnog seasonally, and yogurt.
We did it for the love of farming. The kids do it because they love it too, and see a future in it.