By Elizabeth Chorney-Booth

One concern of many farmers in Alberta is whether or not younger generations will go into agriculture and carry on the tradition of the family farm.

Christopher and Jessica Fasoli, the couple behind Bear and the Flower, a free range pork farm near Irricana, are proving that millennial farmers can not only make a living in agriculture, but are helping to redefine the way we think of small hands-on farming.

After growing up on a cattle ranch, Christopher decided to pursue a career in manufacturing while Jessica did school counseling work. Since they already owned some land from Christopher’s family farm, the couple decided to utilize it to generate some extra income, but they didn’t want to go with an expensive and labour-intensive product like cattle.

Why would we raise something that we wouldn’t purchase ourselves?

Knowing that pigs were easier and cheaper to keep, and turned over much more quickly than cattle, the Fasolis decided pork was their best bet and Bear and the Flower was born in late 2015. Without the resources to build an industrial pig barn, the Fasolis decided that they’d go for an outdoor free-range farm. Their pigs live outside all year and have plenty of room to roam, with free rein of the farm’s ample pastures in the summer and an 11-acre paddock to cozy up in for the winter.

While the outdoor set-up made economic sense, it also fit with the couple’s personal beliefs. With all that space, each pig generally takes more steps in a week than a conventionally raised pig would in its entire life.

“It’s about the ethics and the quality of the pork,” Christopher says. “Jessica and I personally buy top-quality locally raised products, so why would we raise something that we wouldn’t purchase ourselves?”

But ethics alone doesn’t make for great-tasting pork. Knowing that they would have to attract top chefs and foodies to make the farm work, Christopher and Jessica had to figure out how to produce pigs that weren’t just happy, but also delicious. After receiving feedback in their first year that their pork was too fatty, the Fasolis sought the council of professional animal nutritionists and geneticists.

They ended up crossbreeding Duroc and Landrace pigs for an animal that is disposed to raising piglets, can withstand the Canadian winter (Durocs were developed in North America), have the right level of fat marbling, and a nice flavour profile.

Of course, feed makes a difference too – to both the end user and the pig itself. Bear and the Flower’s pigs don’t just eat a feed mix that gives their meat the optimal amount of fat marbling – nutritionists also add flax to their diets to keep them healthy through the harsh Alberta winter. The vitamins from that flax end up in the final product and as a result, every piece of Bear and the Flower pork qualifies as a source of Omega-3.

“We actually tested three times the required amount of Omega-3 for certification,” Jessica says. “We didn’t even know that was going to happen when we started feeding them the flax. Most people think they need to eat salmon to get that, but you can get your Omega-3s by eating a piece of our pork.”

Through all of this, as well as a good marketing sense and the ability to form easy relationships with other young food professionals, Christopher and Jessica have grown Bear and the Flower well beyond the passive secondary income that they were hoping for when they set up the farm.

They both work full time with the company, which now has five additional employees. Three years into their operation they’re selling an average of 60 to 80 hogs a week with about 1,600 animals on the farm at any given time.

Most people think they need to eat salmon…but you can get your Omega-3s by eating a piece of our pork

Bear and the Flower pork is showing up by name on a number of menus in Alberta, at renowned restaurants like Bread and Circus and OEB in Calgary, Chartier and the River Cree Resort and Casino in the Edmonton area, and the Banff Centre and the Juniper Bistro in Banff. They’re also selling whole hogs to butcher shops and sausage makers like Calgary’s Empire Provisions.

And the business is growing: clients like Calgary’s Concorde Group and the Calgary Stampede are able to order in bulk and spread different cuts among different properties and events so that the farm is able to sell off less desirable cuts like legs and shoulders as well as the prized loins and bellies.

There’s also a deal in the works to provide ham steaks to seniors’ complexes. It’s all more than Christopher and Jessica could have dreamed of when they sold their first pigs three years ago, but they’re thrilled that their strategies are resonating with the industry and the public.

“It’s so important to build a brand around your farm because it creates good will,” Jessica says. “It’s important to our business model that we’re more than just a farm. We now have a reputation to uphold — we really want people to learn how to trust their farmers again.”

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