[slideshow]Dixon’s first brought Angus cattle to their Bannockburn Valley Farm in Clyde River in 1954 before Alex and Peter were born. Since that time, the breeding herd has grown to 150 cows of which ten are Hereford, five Highland, and the remainder, Angus. Alex says this number of cattle is manageable for him and his older brother Mack. Their brother Peter who is a teacher also helps out along with his son Andrew.
The Dixon farm is a breeding operation. They produce about 150 calves a year. Some calves are sold as breeding stock and others are sold to be raised for beef. Their brother-in-law Jim Colodey, their sister Hilda’s husband, who also has cattle, represents the maritimes on the Canadian Angus Association Board of Directors. Their daughter Catherine Colodey who was involved in the farm while growing up in the Bannockburn graduated from Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown and now works as a veterinarian at Prairie Animal Health Centre in Weyburn, Saskatchewan.
They have built a strong stock of grass-fed animals which distinguishes their cattle from grain-fed stock. Grass-fed beef is sought out now by high-end restaurants, chefs and retailers that sell to customers who are prepared to pay a higher price to enjoy the flavour and perceived health benefits of this type of meat. However, this high-end market is still in its early growth stages and, given the current economic situation, it’s a niche market, as prices are a little high for the average family.
Alex says that recently some of their replacement heifers were sold to Russia where the agricultural industry is transforming after the fall of Communism. Russia had to move from a command economy to a market-oriented economy, and it was not easy. Russian cattle farms are about half household plots and slightly over half corporate farms. Household plots represent plots of land of less than .5 hectare that are attached to rural residences and operate as subsistence farms to feed individual families with any surplus sold to relatives and neighbours. Corporate farms replaced the collective farm that had existed under the Soviet System. With a population of 143 million with 133 million hectares of land suitable for agriculture, Russia is both a major producer and consumer of agricultural products. Also, the middle class is growing, earning better salaries and acquiring a taste for higher quality meats.
Just a few weeks ago, President Vladmir Putin announced a plan to cut its $3 billion import bill of beef, with a goal for Russia to supply 85% of its own meat needs by 2020 by increasing their local farming operations. Angus cattle are a perfect breed for the cold in Russia; they grow as much hair as they need and pass that genetic trait to their calves, and the Angus breed has been marketed well as a good quality meat.
Dixon’s also have sheep. With 15 ewes, they produce 35 lambs each year, and they are predominantly sold for food. Halifax offers a good market close by with its growing ethnic population, specifically Middle Eastern, where lamb is a regular part of their diet and for restaurants and markets catering to customers who consider lamb fine cuisine.
Andrew Dixon represents the next generation of Dixon’s. He is a trained mechanic and offers his services to keep the Dixon farm equipment maintained, which Alex says is a big help in reducing operating costs. They even built a new garage on the property for Andrew to work. When Andrew was 12 years old, the family asked him what he wanted for his birthday, thinking he may be looking for the latest electronic gadget, but, instead, he said he wanted a Highland cow, aptly named after the Highland region of Scotland. Andrew had seen them at former NHL player Bobbie MacMillan’s farm and was keen to have one of his own. When they went to see them, Mack decided he wanted one, too. Now they have five Highlands with horns as majestic as a Queen’s crown and a reddish, blond coat. Touring around the farm, we found them resting and commanding a presence on the side of the hill under the trees by the brook. Their names are Millie, Daisy, Suede, Blizzard and Snowball.
The Dixon’s 700-acre farm stretches from the Clyde River near Dixon’s bridge along the hill to George Dixon’s farm by the boundary to Kingston and back to the Lynwood Road. I spent my childhood looking across at their farm, and now this week, I had my first opportunity to stand on top of their hill and look across to our farm and the original Beer home place settled in the 1830s where Hilda Beer now lives. Both the Dixon’s and the Beer’s operated saw mills on this portion of the Clyde River that ran through their respective properties. The saw mills are long gone, but Alex showed me where the West River Watershed Group is clearing the river of Alder trees and silt, building safe habitats for fish, stocking the river with salmon and raising the river bed to allow fish to travel through the culvert at the Beer’s bridge.
The portion of the Clyde River that flows behind Harvey MacQuarrie’s is a popular fishing spot in spring for those looking for trout. Up along the river that flows alongside the Bannockburn Road on the Dixon farm is a nesting area for Osprey. We witnessed a territorial maneuver while we were there. A young bald eagle was soaring around, and a resident osprey was concerned about protecting her young, so we saw her fending him off and diving at the eagle to move him far up the hill. Each spring, there is a battle over the coveted nest that sits on top of the old spruce tree by the river. The nest is a collection of branches and other natural elements but also shreds of plastic scavenged from hay bales and possibly the bags that The Guardian newspaper arrives in on rainy days. Alex says that someone cut the tree close to the West River that housed a bald eagle nest, so they are attempting to move over to Clyde River. So far, the osprey are in control of the nest, but one would wonder if the bald eagles have a temporary nest, as they are often sighted in this area now.
It was far up the hill and through the back woods that we found many of Dixon’s cattle seeking refuge from the heat under their favourite trees. The hot, dry summer here in Prince Edward Island has even tamed the roosters, hens, ducks and chickens in Dixon’s barn yard enough to take some close-up photos. It is a farm of contentment on this warm afternoon.
Thank you, Alex, for your tour of the Dixon Farm and for the opportunity to walk up the hill and look across to where I grew up and recall the days you, Peter and I walked home together from Clyde River School.