Photos by Steve Smith, VisionFire Studios
At Home With Mike Ward
For farmers, spring is the time to get ready
for the upcoming season. At Crossroads
Valley Farm—located in the beautiful Ohio
River valley, south of Antigonish—the garden is
being prepared for planting and the land and
equipment readied for the influx of animals.
It was late April 2021, when I first spoke with Mike Ward, owner of Crossroads Valley Farm. “I’m on my way to town to pick up my daughters,” he said. “We’re going to get our hens for the season.” His farm offers fresh eggs, poultry, and pork — “all humanely raised and provided access to fresh air and sunshine.”
Mike was raised in Saskatchewan and was working in Calgary when he and his wife, Tricia, made the decision to move east in 2013. They wanted a different way of life for their daughters. “We definitely moved to Nova Scotia for the lifestyle, community, family, and healthy food,” says Ward. “We are very fortunate to have found our home here in Antigonish. It is an amazing town and county that has so much to offer.
“Our friends and family thought we were nuts to give up our well-paying jobs and move all the way across the country. We bought this 115-plus-year-old house and property, then got to work making it our family farm.
“I grew up mainly in the city of Regina, although I spent many summer weekends at my Grandma’s farm near Assiniboia. I was an electrical engineer for more than 15 years, who never in a million years thought I would become a farmer,” says Ward. After having their first daughter, Sadie, in 2011, Mike and Tricia took stock of their way of life and knew it was time to make a change.
When asked if he’s glad about the move, Ward doesn’t hesitate to answer. “We’re so happy we did.” Mike and Tricia want their daughters to know their neighbours and feel connected to people; something they weren’t sure they could manage in a big city.
A vendor and current president of the board for the Antigonish Farmers’ Market, he admits being a small farmer is tough, but it feeds his soul. “Local community and good food are what we are all about. We believe that ‘community starts at the kitchen table,’ and amazing tasting, ethically raised food is our passion.” Sounding like a true Maritimer, he adds, “Most of our memories and celebrations seem to revolve around some kind of family-and-friend meal gathering.”
People are eager to buy local and to know where their food is coming from. “The community and our customers have been amazing at supporting our farm,” says Ward. He goes personally to the Antigonish Farmers’ Market each Saturday to meet his customers and discuss the work he does. He also sells from the farm and supplies local restaurants including, Liscombe Lodge and The Townhouse Brewpub & Eatery. He’s glad to provide access to locally produced products for the people on the North Shore.
Crossroads Valley Farm is family-owned and operated by Mike, Tricia, and their two daughters, Sadie, 10, and Fiona, six. “I never raised any animals previously, which was probably a benefit because I wasn’t afraid to try different things,” Ward says. His previous work as an engineer comes in handy. He’s smart and innovative, learning as he goes.
“Currently we raise free-range meat chickens, turkeys, and laying hens. But it’s our forest-raised pigs that are the most unique. Since the property doesn’t have a barn, we do things differently. Our pigs are raised in portable pens throughout our forest. Once trained to the electric fence, we set up portable fencing and move them through the forest to give the opportunity to express their ‘pigness’ and get some little extra stuff in their diet.” He laughs and says, “If you let a pig go, he’d head to the forest; he wouldn’t go to the barn or the field, he’d go to the forest.” Pigs can be hard on the land with their digging, foraging, and rooting so they are moved as needed, hopscotching over the property. Ward moves them in a north direction one year and in a south direction the next, being mindful of the land and maintaining its viability.
The very things Mike and Tricia value in raising their children: fresh air to breathe, sunshine to soak in, land to play on, and nutritious food, have become the key components they value in raising animals on their farm. The “hen mobile” moves around the property. It’s an old travel trailer Ward modified to be a hen house. “Nothing stands still. Everything moves,” says Ward. Something he considers important.
The piglets arrive at the end of May. They raise heritage pigs, such as Durlocs or Berkshires, and the standard pink variety. The chicks begin to arrive in early May, about 300 at a time, until they get the amount they wish to raise for the season. In 2020, it was 2,000 chickens and 1,300 in 2021. Turkeys also arrive in May. All the birds are kept in brooders until it gets warm enough for them to be outside and they have feathered out. Then they are moved to pastured pens and relocated around the farm for the remainder of the season.
Meat chickens are fed standard feed, but a fresh patch of grass each day provides a “green tonic.” Every pastured pen has a shelter and 160 feet of poultry netting. Each day, the entire thing is moved forward one length providing new land and room for movement. It also keeps the animals from being in their own waste. Relocating them daily deters predators who like to stalk their prey. The movement discourages attacks and helps keep the chickens safe.
Each year they learn, paying attention to the balance of what the land can produce, the work required, and the need of their customers. This year, in 2022, Ward says they’ve achieved that balance. “I think we have found our sweet spot for the number of chickens, turkey, hens, and pigs we want to raise sustainably,” says Ward. “Seems like the land has a comfortable holding capacity and we also have our own workload capacity that we can handle.”
For the family, they keep a large garden filled with nutritious bounty. “Tricia is as much of a farmer as I am,” explains Ward. “She is involved in moving all the chickens and pigs, which involves feeding and watering them as well. But her focus is on healthy food for the family. She cooks almost everything from scratch and the ingredients are mostly from our farm or the Farmers’ Market. We have two large chest freezers for our meats, veggies, and fruits. Plus, we have cold storage for our potatoes, carrots, onions, beets, parsnips, and garlic.
“Sadie and Fiona like the animals on the farm, especially our four cats,” Ward continues. The girls are a bit young for much of the farm work but love to help where they can. “Our goal is to get them running different parts of the farm business in the future and selling at the market with us,” says Ward. “We call them our ‘free-range kids.’”
In the spring of 2021, their eldest daughter started her farming journey. “Sadie has her own separate 12 laying hens right now and she is managing them herself. She wanted to get some of her own hens to provide her with a little spending money.
“Sadie enjoyed the hens, but she sold most of them back to the farm for the winter,” says Ward. “The only thing we overwinter is our hens. Overwintering animals is the hardest part,” he admits. “We have about 100 laying hens but don’t even keep all of them over the winter. Hens can withstand cold up to -20°C if there’s not a breeze or humidity. They fluff up. They don’t have any blood vessels in their feet, so they sit on the roost and they’re fine. I’ve never lost one chicken to cold,” he explains.
They keep enough hens to supply farm-fresh eggs to their regular customers. For 2022, Sadie may take a different approach. “We are looking at having her manage the larger flock and paying her a percentage of the income generated,” says Ward. “We’ll see how it goes.”
Now that the days are gaining warmth the process starts again. The Wards prepare for their busiest season with much work needing to be done. But it’s also the season that reminds them they are right where they need to be, doing what makes them, and their many customers, happy.