Drive to the end of the pavement on Airport Way, keep going past Echo Lake and keep an eye out at the 8-kilometre road post. A break in the trees offers a sweeping view of the chalky-blue Akolkolex River’s alluvial fan into the Columbia River.
The Victoria Day sunshine lights the moist deep greens on hundreds of acres of pastures and woods on both shores of the Columbia. The Greenslide Cattle Company’s land is on the east shore; the land on the west is leased from BC Hydro for summer pasture, allowing Greenslide to grow hay and haylage in the summer.
At the end of a dirt road just past the Akolkolex Bridge, Greenslide Cattle Company head rancher Dwayne Wright unlocks the main gate. His young shelter rescue dog Kaydo, a German shepherd mix, has gone where all overwhelmed dog owners hope theirs will end up – to the farm.
Wiry, with close-cropped hair and a shaggy pepper beard, Wright wears a thin T-shirt, tattoos and a red tan from the farm. Kaydo hasn’t lost the habit that landed him on the farm – chewing anything leather – so Dwayne wears gum boots on a hot and humid late-spring day.
We wind down the shattered-rock road and drive slowly across a sweeping pasture to the corral by the river, where about 85 cattle are penned, ready for their twice-annual ferry ride across the Columbia.
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Media tours of worksites often feature superfluous hard hats and safety lectures. Not here. We’re over the corral fence without a word. Wright leads me straight through a herd of large, horned animals that are protecting their newborn calves. The wake-up call is more effective than a plastic lid.
Owners Jim and Adele Graham round out the team for the drive. In suspenders and jeans, Jim looks more like a logger (which is his other job). Adele wears head-to-toe denim and a Brandt Tractor ball-cap. Agriculture and cattle have been in the Sinclair family since before the reservoir flooded the valley in the late ‘60s. In the mid-90s, they embarked on a revival of the beef business, and have built their herd up to 85 breeding cows, which translates to about 300 head.
We’re there for the spring drive across the Columbia River. From the corral, Adele opens the gate as Jim and Dwayne wander through the penned animals and separate about 15 for each trip.
They’re driven down to the river, onto the deck of Greenslide’s homemade barge. Kaydo takes tips from veteran cattle dog Cinder, though it seems like the veteran cows who know the drill are really leading the show.
Once aboard, the gates are lashed shut and the cattle encouraged to one end of the barge in order to shift the weight off the sandy shore.
Behind the captain’s wheel, Jim powers up the 200-horsepower Mercury engine for the 10-minute voyage across.
The wheelhouse is accented with fishing tackle, a small cookstove and blankets. Jim and Adele explain how they grew their business. In the mid-’90s, they started building a herd of Gelbveih cattle, taking advantage of the remote and isolated pasture land, which protects the animals from disease transmission.
They don’t spray the fields with pesticides, or treat the animals with antibiotics or hormones – all common practices designed to maximize profits.
They sold farm-gate, mostly locally, mostly word of mouth. Cutting out the middle man means they can compete on price. Several years ago, abattoir rules changed, forcing them to use abattoirs in Salmon Arm and Enderby. In the end, the change was for the better; they’re able to sell locally to restaurants (La Baguette, Modern Bakeshop & Cafe, Mountain Meals and several others. Dolan Home Delivery also carries their products) and market their product more effectively. Their freezer packs sell out soon after they’re offered. The beef is organic, minus the seal; Adele explains their local customers know their product and that certification would add unnecessary bureaucracy and cost.
Adele said their land (with the range area leased from BC Hydro) can sustain about 100 breeding cattle. They don’t want to bring in feed – it creates health issues when outside agriculture products are introduced. They’re at about 85 breeding cows now, and are working toward their ultimate goal.
The bright sunshine illuminates the tall, deep-green grasses of the western shore. Hundreds of hastily-cut stumps perch atop dry, skeletal root bunches stripped clean of soil by the rise and fall of the river. On our last of about five trips, calves and cows separated during the day swim towards the barge as we approach. They U-turn as we get closer, then try to climb back up the hydraulic ramp when it is lowered onto the sand. A few enthusiastic “haws” and wild gesticulating by Dwayne eventually sorts out the cow gridlock.
The herd runs back up the beach and goes for another lap around the large pasture area before settling down to eat.
As we power back home across the reservoir, Jim and Adele scan back across the water, recognizing individuals from hundreds of metres away. They’re making sure all the cows and their calves are pairing up properly, worrying about a couple of the newborns.
Adele explains they’ve got to know their cattle by looks. Distinctive markings on a calve will remind her of its grandmother.
Adele said they’ve sent a few head to auction recently, but will soon be able to do 100 per cent direct sales. They all want it that way. “I know they’re in our care right to the last day,” she explained. They don’t spend time in feedlots; they’re treated well.
They’ve also selected the best, closest abattoirs and use proper hang-curing (unlike industrial plastic bag techniques used to retain extra water weight.)
Wright started out logging for Jim Graham, before taking on the job as head rancher about a dozen years ago. He loves it, he explained. Exclusive fishing access, a stunning environment and lots to keep you busy. He’ll start on the summer hay crop now. In winter, he drives in to tend the cattle, even snowmobiling in when the roads become un-passable. The cattle take care of themselves, mostly. The multi-purpose Gelbveih cattle are paired with smaller bulls, so they calve without difficulty. He has to “pull” a calf only about once a year.
“My son wants to be a farmer,” Wright said.
After just one fabulous day on the ranch for me, I start wondering if there are any other pasture lands somewhere south on the Arrow Lake I can stake. Burton Cattle Company? Fauquier Cattle Company? Edgewood Organic Cattle? I wonder.
Contact Greenslide Cattle Company via email at email@example.com