Heatherlea Farm Shoppe
With its own livestock and in-house butchers, this Caledon farm reinvents traditional food production in a shiny new market.
Butcher Jason Cooney makes tiny cuts along the breastbone of a deep red Muscovy duck to gently separate the meat from the rib cage. “People think butchers hack away using cleavers – it’s more about little cuts,” he says. “You follow the natural curvature of the duck breast.”
Jason is the head butcher at Heatherlea Farm Shoppe, the new on-farm market opened in Caledon this spring by Pat and Gord McArthur. He wields his knife with ease, showing me and my fellow workshop participants how he portions the poultry displayed in the shop’s 18-foot meat counter behind us.
There are many revelations on offer tonight, after hours, in the pristine and bright cutting room tucked behind the meat counter. Jason shares insights on which cuts are best for brining, a better way to truss a whole chicken for even cooking, and how to make carving easier by removing the wishbone before roasting.
“Butchery is a lost craft,” says Jason, his old-timey wool and leather apron a chic throwback.
Pat McArthur and her daughter-in-law Melinda McArthur are also attending the workshop this evening. As they look on and share the story of Heatherlea and its long history in Caledon, it’s evident this farm family believes the lost craft of butchery, married with their experience producing naturally raised Aberdeen Angus beef, is the key to a sustainable, even prosperous, future.
Melinda, who is married to Pat and Gord’s son Don, is a partner in the business. “Melinda and I wanted to offer more for our customers,” Pat says of the family’s 2013 decision to supersize their on-farm retail operation. (Daughter Shannon and her husband Rod are “involved in spirit,” says Pat.)
Gord has been raising black Aberdeen Angus cattle on this and other nearby properties since the 1970s. The herd now numbers about 140, with 60 females producing calves each year on a total of more than 250 acres.
After noticing a spike in customers wanting to buy the naturally raised beef directly from the farm, the McArthurs started selling frozen cuts out of their farmhouse in 2009 – a project that eventually took over three rooms and required seven large chest freezers. Other meats, fish, dried goods, baking and frozen prepared foods rounded out the mix. (Before that, there had been a bed and breakfast and a go at agritourism, complete with corn mazes. “That didn’t work,” says Pat dryly.)
Heatherlea Farm Shoppe, the new chapter
That first shop’s earnest vibe now permeates the new 5,000-square-foot, cedar-sided shop overlooking Winston Churchill Boulevard. The space houses the meat counter and those same chest freezers, cutting and hanging rooms, a café and bakery, retail shelves of dry goods and tables of local produce from such suppliers as Reid’s Century Farm Potatoes from Mono and Zócalo Organics from Hillsburgh.
But the meat counter is undoubtedly the heart of the operation, with Gord’s strain of Aberdeen Angus front and centre. Jason figures he’ll be selling two sides a week this summer. If you eat beef, consider it one of the shortest supply chains you’ll ever participate in. The cattle graze on grass and are finished for up to 90 days on grain also grown by Gord. They’re sent to Peel Sausage in Drayton to be slaughtered. (Gord has just started offering farm-raised white Plymouth Rock chickens too.)
“Gord takes a lot of care and pride; I try not to mess it up,” says Jason, who came to butchery after working as a chef in local restaurants, including The Barley Vine Rail Co. in Orangeville and Mono Cliffs Inn.
Jason and fellow Heatherlea butcher Steve Aspinall fill the rest of the case with meat from partners such as Cambridge’s Murray Allan Thunberg, who is supplying Berkshire pork. (Watch also for his multi-hued heritage-breed eggs in the dairy fridge.) Jason and Steven paired Murray’s pork with foraged wild leeks and morels in homemade sausages.
Set behind a large window, the hanging room provides the kind of insider access customers crave in an era when shrink-wrapped, mass-produced meat has lost its lustre. The night of our workshop, we huddle in the 2°C room (the cutting room had been a balmy 6 to 10 degrees) as Jason kindly let us stray off schedule, asking him questions about the dry aging process.
As Pat leads me on a tour a few days later, she explains the impetus for all this came after she had opened a commercial kitchen on the property in 2011 to prepare stews, curries and other takeaway frozen dishes for sale. Folks at the Ontario Farm Fresh Marketing Association, a non-profit group helping farmers promote their products, pointed out that having a kitchen in a separate building was a lost opportunity. “‘If they smell it, they’ll buy it,’ we were told,” says Pat. “Gord and I said, ‘We think we’d better move.’”
With those fateful words, the couple and their family embarked on a three-year journey, always keeping their current and hoped-for customers in mind.
We check out the giant walk-in fridge and matching freezer at the back of the building, connected by a hallway. It’s as spotless as the customer area. “People want small and local, but they also want professional,” says Melinda. “And clean,” adds Pat.
The café at the north end of the building is anchored by a long bar, made from reclaimed wood by local craftsman Chris Cull, and a Mennonite butcher block. It was supposed to function mostly as a spot for more workshop demos, but demographics are nudging it elsewhere. “The cyclists want lattes,” says Pat with a smile. So an espresso machine is on the way.
The “café queens” as they’re called – Claire Loftus, Elizabeth Rowe and Caitlin McLeod – make baked goods and meals from scratch, also filling the freezers with comfort foods like butter chicken and chili. Pat says Heatherlea is one of just eight markets in Ontario doing on-site, from-scratch cooking. A huge upside: Almost nothing goes to waste, especially fresh meat. And yes, the smells waft out over the shop.
“We’d talk about how [on-farm food retailing] should be part theatre,” says Cathy Bartolic, executive director of OFFMA. “They’ve taken it to the next level with the hanging room and cutting room. It’s very transparent and makes the customer feel a part of the whole process.”
A lengthy journey
Arriving here wasn’t easy. There were seemingly endless bureaucratic hurdles. Pat is candid, admitting there were times she felt overwhelmed. But for others who follow, the Town of Caledon has made changes, allowing for more of these kinds of on-farm businesses (see sidebar, below).
It feels like the way of the future: keeping land in agricultural use, helping farmers increase their income and, in turn, their commitment to the land. Farming is expensive, says Pat, “Let’s face it, tractors cost $70,000 now. In Gord’s grandfather’s day you’d pay cash for a tractor.”
In the McArthurs’ case, Pat has worked off-farm, commuting for up to four hours a day at times. Gord and Don have run second businesses, including fencing, landscaping and constructing covered utility buildings. “It’s always been that way,” says Melinda. “You need someone working off the farm.”
Pat credits OFFMA for helping her find the right retail formula and layout, and connecting the family to other on-farm businesses and butchers in Ontario. Jason was able to visit other operations for training long before the shop’s construction was complete.
On the day of the grand opening in April, the stress of launching a new business all seemed worth it. “When the lights went on, it was ‘Wow!’” says Pat, adding she was blown away by the support of the community.
Oh, and that commute? In the winters it can feel like a long walk from the farmhouse to the shop. “I’ll call to make sure the coffee’s on,” Pat laughs. “It’s a lot of work and a lot of fun,” adds Melinda.
But this team is not the type to sit down long with that java. A soft-spoken and unassuming woman, Pat freely shares her long list of to-dos. She wants to serve fresh prepared meals to go, offer more butchery and cooking workshops, and tweak Heatherlea’s catering offerings. There’s space for an outdoor patio this summer. Ice cream is on the way, per Gord’s request. (The story goes that as a child he carried a spoon in his back pocket just in case of an encounter with the cold creamy treat.) And there’s that espresso machine to buy.
“We’re always game to try something new,” Pat says, surveying the shop. While it is well stocked, it’s not packed with merchandise; there is room to grow.
“Our customers have doubled since we opened,” she says, adding that she’s noticing a lot more young people with families. About 30 per cent of customers live close by, with the rest coming from 45 minutes or more afield.
There are pricey green juices in the fridge, those gourmet sausages made with fancy ingredients, and there will be lattes, but the predominant ethos here is anything but pretentious. As Pat discusses what’s ahead, she loops back to her family’s farm roots, citing the longtime 4-H motto: “‘Learn by doing’ – that’s what we’re doing.”
A Long Row to Hoe
It seems like a no-brainer. You have a farm gate operation selling meat you raise or vegetables you grow on the family farm. Now, you’d like to build a bona fide shop to serve your growing customer list.
Not so fast. Get ready for red tape and fees at every turn. Despite a groundswell of support for on-farm shops as a means to get healthy local food to consumers faster, keep agricultural land in use and allow farm families to boost their slim profit margins, some rural municipalities have been slow to adapt their policies to the obvious advantages.
In the case of Heatherlea Farm Shoppe, it took three years from application to opening – and a bumpy and expensive three years at that. Pat, Gord and Melinda McArthur dealt with bylaws, applications and fees from a variety of departments at the Town of Caledon and the Region of Peel, including several meetings with the fire department. They also chased approvals from other planning authorities, including a nail-biting wait for a permit from Credit Valley Conservation as the June 2015 ground-breaking deadline was imminent.
They were given no administrative template, no road map through the bureaucracy, no time frames. They’d celebrate clearing one hurdle only to be confronted with another.
In addition to the expected site applications and building permit fees, there were also many thousands in development fees, plus funds earmarked for the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board. The Region of Peel required the family to pay for a survey in order to turn over three metres of road allowance for any potential widening of Winston Churchill Boulevard – which meant building a new fence line.
“Every fee charged was a surprise,” says Pat, who would have especially welcomed a fee schedule explaining what was coming.
“It was pretty darn scary going through the process,” she says, admitting some of the drawn-out negotiations left her in tears.
The bureaucracy is “crazy,” says Cathy Bartolic, the Aurora-based executive director of the Ontario Farm Fresh Marketing Association, a non-profit group dedicated to helping farmers promote their products. Cathy says Heatherlea’s struggles – and the similarly onerous ones experienced by nearby Spirit Tree Cidery in Caledon a few years before it – are common across the province. “It’s the municipalities. Maybe they haven’t had to deal with these kinds of applications before, but they throw up extra barriers.”
The Town of Caledon recommends hiring a planning consultant for “those who are not familiar with the planning process,” says Rob Hughes, the Town’s manager of development. Yet Pat, Gord and Melinda’s experience suggests no farmer embarking on this kind of project could be familiar with the process until they’d come through the other side. The family did pay a consultant $30,000 and were disappointed by how little that helped.
Others following their lead should, theoretically, have a better go of it.
Hughes says when Heatherlea first proposed its shop, the Town wasn’t “fully permissive” of this kind of development. But because amendments to the Official Plan were underway to allow for certain secondary agricultural activities, Heatherlea obtained permission through a committee of adjustment application.
The Official Plan amendments were approved in September 2014, with the relevant zoning provisions approved in June last year. Those “are now supportive of on-farm diversified and agritourism uses, and staff are working with several prospective applicants in this regard,” Hughes says.
OFFMA’s Cathy Bartolic is optimistic that with the provincial government’s recent local food push and policy shifts such as those in Caledon, change is coming. Still, she says, “I’d warn people to do their homework and take baby steps.”
Pat says in the end she did feel supported by both customers and many bureaucrats and elected officials. (The family was also grateful to receive a financial grant from the provincial Local Food Fund, which went toward equipment costs.)
She’s hoping others can benefit from their journey. “It ended up really well for us, but it shouldn’t have taken from August 2013 to May 2016.”
Heatherlea butcher Jason Cooney’s tips for perfect summer barbecuing
Look for cuts of meat that have a higher fat content. I love a very simple beef burger with good lettuce, aged gouda and onion jam on a brioche bun. Otherwise, I prefer cuts such as flat iron steak, skirt steak or Korean short ribs. For chicken, use thighs and drumsticks on the bone. (Skinless chicken is a pet peeve because its surface gets dried out. Even if you don’t like chicken skin, leave it on while it’s cooking and remove it before eating.)
Take meat out of the fridge and cover at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour. This decreases cooking time and allows for more even cooking.
Don’t leave a marinade with a lot of salt or acid on your meat for too long or it will make it tough. Marinades are best on less tender cuts of beef and on chicken.
Dry rubs are good for introducing flavours as well as creating an exterior crust. As with marinades, don’t leave salty rubs on for long. Be careful with sugary rubs – they will burn very quickly.
With seasoning, less is more. A high quality steak or chop only needs salt and a little pepper. Again, add salt just before cooking. Season before serving with a high quality finishing salt like smoked sea salt or a Himalayan pink salt.
Unless you’re using a marinade that has a lot of oil in it, massage or brush a small amount of oil onto the surface of the meat after applying seasoning or dry rub.
I only use sweet barbecue sauces on ribs. If you like these sauces, make sure they’re added at the end of the cooking process to avoid charring.
WATCH THE HEAT
Use the palm test. Hold your open palm three or four inches over the surface of the grill and count to see how long you can hold it there before having to pull away. Two seconds is high heat, five seconds is medium heat and 10 is low heat.
Watch for flare-ups. Flames should never come into contact with the meat. Even if they don’t char it, they can give meat a bitter, astringent flavour. Use a spray bottle to extinguish them. I use this as an opportunity to introduce more flavour. Try beer when you’re cooking sausages or red wine for steaks.
Use thermometers – your barbecue’s and a probe thermometer to make sure meat is cooked to your liking.
HOW TO FLIP
If you’re trying to sear meat, don’t flip it more than once. Only move it to get it away from a hot spot on the grill or because there’s a flare-up. The more time it spends on the grill without moving, the better crust and grilled flavour it gets.
Don’t use barbecue forks or any implements with sharp edges. Stick to tongs and steel spatulas to keep meat juicy.
LET IT REST
Let your meats rest for up to half as long as it took to cook. Cover loosely with aluminum foil. The meat should have some space around it for circulation or you’ll lose your exterior crust. Most proteins will continue to cook, so remove from direct heat when your steaks are still a little undercooked.