Rockcliffe Farm’s Free-range Thinking

Alix and George Bezak raise black Angus cattle, chickens and more at their Mono property, winning over natural-meat converts one farm tour at a time.

June 20, 2019 | | Farming

There’s a sign on the tree-lined approach to Mono’s Rockcliffe Farm asking motorists to drive slowly and be mindful there are “children and chickens on the loose.”

The first sounds I hear confirm the message. Children’s laughter rises from a nearby backyard trampoline and clucking chickens scratch in the laneway dirt. From a cloistered spot inside an expansive wire enclosure, honking geese add to the happy cacophony.

If the fowl are the noisy scene stealers here at Rockcliffe, the striking black Angus cattle grazing in the fields are the real headliners. Inside the cozy farm store, owners Alix and George Bezak offer frozen cuts of this grass-fed beef, raised “the way nature intended,” without growth hormones, antibiotics or steroids. “There’s a big difference between good, natural meat and store-bought meat,” says Alix.

Rockcliffe Farm owner Alix Bezak in front of her on-farm shop with her chocolate lab, Goose. Photo by Pete Paterson.

Rockcliffe Farm owner Alix Bezak in front of her on-farm shop with her chocolate lab, Goose. Photo by Pete Paterson.

Together, the dozen-strong cattle herd and 100 laying hens are responsible for the farm store’s fastest-moving items. “Nobody leaves without eggs,” says Alix, adding that ground beef is a close second.

The Bezaks also raise about 800 meat chickens and as many as 50 turkeys each summer, along with ducks and geese on occasion. The property is also home to 30 mixed-breed ewes and a Suffolk ram. And there are three Tamworth-Duroc cross sows and a stalwart Berkshire boar.

It’s the Bezaks’ own flock – daughter Peyton is five and son Nathan is three – that inspires the whole operation and the couple’s adherence to the organic approach. “I began raising the animals for ourselves to eat, being a conscientious consumer,” Alix says. “It escalated when I realized this could be a way to make some money with the farm and be a work-at-home mom. We like to be transparent in the way we produce food for you and your family. If I won’t serve it to my family, I won’t sell it to yours.”

By living stress-free outdoors with fresh air, clean water, plenty of space and the highest quality feed (the cattle eat only grass and are not finished with any grain), the Bezaks’ animals stay healthy and don’t require medications, says Alix.

Their animals receive no routine antibiotics in their feed, a common practice on industrial farms, though a vet would administer appropriate medication to a sick animal. The industry routine is to keep such animals out of the food chain for a withdrawal period, but Alix says at Rockcliffe they triple those periods to be extra safe.

Rockcliffe’s animals are slaughtered and butchered at a family-run, government-inspected abattoir in Harriston in Wellington County, where cuts are individually vacuum sealed and flash frozen. The Rockcliffe on-farm freezers are backed up by a generator in the event of power outages.

Rockcliffe Farm’s naturally raised black Angus cattle eat only pasture grass. Photo by Pete Paterson.

Rockcliffe Farm’s naturally raised black Angus cattle eat only pasture grass. Photo by Pete Paterson.

It’s hard to believe this foray into animal husbandry is relatively new for the pair. Neither has a background in agriculture. Alix grew up on a horse farm in the Township of King, where she taught riding lessons, and George is an Ottawa native, who also has some experience with horses. They moved to this property in 2016 from another Mono farm, where they had dipped their toes into raising farm animals for themselves. The current farm started as 47 acres and last year the couple purchased another 17 acres from a neighbour to the west.

As George leads a tour of the barns, pastures, livestock and even the farm vehicles, he doesn’t make it sound like it has been a terribly steep learning curve. “It’s pretty straightforward for us. We keep the animals healthy and happy.”

It sounds simple, but it’s a doctrine that separates the tender, clean-tasting Rockcliffe meats from their mass-produced, over-processed counterparts. Rockcliffe isn’t certified organic by any of the third-party organizations licensed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. But Alix says certification wouldn’t tick all the boxes their operation does, in any case. Organic certification doesn’t necessarily consider the well-being of the animal. She says large industrial chicken producers, for instance, can be certified because they use organically grown feed, but need offer only a single opening to the outdoors from a barn that houses thousands of birds.

Hence the Bezaks’ interest in offering farm tours. “You see the chickens are outside and the cattle are grass-fed. Meeting the farmer builds a level of trust in people,” says Alix.

Alix and George Bezak use portable structures to shade and protect their chickens, geese, turkeys and ducks while they forage for food. Photo by Pete Paterson.

Alix and George Bezak use portable structures to shade and protect their chickens, geese, turkeys and ducks while they forage for food. Photo by Pete Paterson.

Case in point: As we chat, George and some other men are busy assembling portable Cackellac structures – tarp-covered metal frames – in one of the large green fields between the shop and Mono Centre Road. Alix explains the coops provide chickens shade during the day and protection from predators at night. They are regularly wheeled to fresh grass for feeding, and their “natural fertilization,” as Alix calls it, is left behind.

One of the farm’s two sheep dogs, Bo and Luke, barks, as if to remind me their top job is also the protection racket. Both are great Pyrenees and Anatolian shepherd mixes, and they keep an eye out for at least one bothersome coyote who is interested in the freely roaming sheep.

If the steady flow of visitors one Saturday in May is an indication, consumers are happy with how the Bezaks’ methods affect quality and taste. Indeed, summer sausage, bacon, and many cuts of beef from the spring yield are sold out to the disappointment of a few folks. Those customers don’t leave empty handed, though. In addition to other meats and the deep-yellow-yolked Rockcliffe eggs, there are locally produced staples and treats from 100 Acre Bakery, Pine River Cheese, The Creemore Coffee Company and Escarpment Gardens Herbal Tea Farm, along with honey, preserves and killer house-made granola. Produce from their own farm, Am Braigh Farm and Fiddle Foot Farm round out shopping lists – and Fiddle Foot does a CSA drop here too. (Watch for some of these partners to appear on the plate with Rockcliffe meat on July 13, when Alix and George host one of the dinners in the popular Farm to Table Dinner Series in support of Headwaters Food and Farming Alliance programs.)

The Bezaks’ farm store features their frozen beef and chicken, fresh eggs and other local products including cheeses, bread and preserves. Photo by Pete Paterson.

The Bezaks’ farm store features their frozen beef and chicken, fresh eggs and other local products including cheeses, bread and preserves. Photo by Pete Paterson.

As a few chickens jaywalk in front of us, Alix says the care and attention afforded Rockcliffe Farm’s livestock does means higher prices at the till. “We are obviously higher than grocery stores as we are small and organic, and don’t mass produce our animals,” she says. “But I have a personal connection with all the animals here and they get the very best of care all day, every day.”

About the Author More by James Matthews

James Matthews is a freelance writer living in Orangeville.

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