When my son was doing a research project on sustainable communities a few years ago, the two of us traveled in a small RV to several towns in Northern Ontario where he had arranged meetings with politicians and entrepreneurs. In Hearst, the mayor suggested we visit a local business for lunch if we wanted a good story about sustainable businesses. We were treated to a lesson I have never forgotten.
We entered a storefront promoting burgers, fries and retail meats. Coolers and freezers displayed an assortment of beef, pork, chicken, ostrich, deer and bison. On the opposite wall was a counter to order lunch. The owner, a short, lean, middle-aged woman came out. After introductions, Josh asked her how she started the business.
She laughed and said, “It all started with rabbits.”
“We got rabbits for the kids, but the neighbour’s dog killed them. The children were upset so we replaced them with chicks and soon we were selling eggs.”
“My husband was building a shop for his snowmobile repair business and I asked him to make it big enough to house the chickens too. But when winter came they needed heat to survive and my husband refused to heat the shed for a few chickens. I decided to get a couple of cows to keep the the chickens warm.”
“We started milking the cows and selling the milk. I learned to make cheese. Along came calves and, after a while, I had a small herd. We started selling some for beef and that worked well so we continued to grow.”
“One winter we were sending a trailer load of steers to market in Timmins – about eight hours away. There was a nasty storm, the truck got stuck and the temperature dropped to -40C. I was terrified that all our steers would die on the truck and we’d lose everything. It was out of my control.”
“They didn’t die but I resolved not to be in that situation again. There was no abattoir in Hearst: I took courses, got certified and opened an abattoir so we could butcher our own meat. Soon we were butchering for neighbours and hunters as well.
We sold pepperettes to a major food chain, but when certain rules changed we lost their business. We had nowhere else to sell the meat. So we started a burger restaurant and began doing a better job of marketing to our own community. And now we have trouble keeping up with the demand.”
Some people get lemons and make lemonade. Others get rabbits and build a thriving egg, milk, and cheese business, start an abattoir, a beef herd, a retail store, and a restaurant.
We learned that in some communities people have to adapt and find ways to deal with difficult situations all the time.
We could all learn from them.