We met up with Courtney Denard, a dairy farmer whose heart belongs on the farm, has a passion for supporting women in agriculture, and a huge love for her new(ish) home in Grey County.
June, the farm dog, likes to supervise the cows.
How did you get into farming?
I always wanted to be a farmer. I grew up in Belleville, far from the farming community and with no farming history in my immediate family. I had such a huge interest in the farming community and knew I had to be a part of it.
How did you pursue your farming dreams?
While studying at the University of Guelph, I started working for the university in agricultural communications and that connected me to the industry. Through mutual friends, I was introduced to Rob, a Grey County dairy farmer. Rob and I started dating and not long after I was ready to leave the city and move in with Rob on the farm.
What was your first impression of Grey County?
I was warned that there was going to be a lot of snow and I was a little nervous of what I would do for a job. Without knowing anyone, the first few years were rough, but I started getting involved in the agriculture community. I sat on the board for the Grey Bruce Agriculture & Culinary Association and joined the Grown in Grey initiative, which educates elementary students on agriculture in the county. After a while, I started to feel like I belong here.
Fresh milk ready for distribution.
Almost 10 years later, have your impressions of Grey County changed?
I love it here and have no plans of leaving. When I go to Guelph or Toronto, I can’t wait to get back home to Grey County. I also love that when we want to go away, we’re only two hours away from the major cities. As I didn’t grow up here, I’ve noticed I see things with a different perspective and am always looking for new things to discover, which seem to be endless.
Courtney and Rob with a little calf.
What do you do for work now?
When I moved to Grey County in 2008, I was able to bring the job I had in Guelph with me. I was working for The Canadian Sheep Federation at the time. In 2009, I quit that position to focus on my writing career. I did freelance work for clients in the agriculture sector before taking a full-time Field Reporter position with Ontario Farmer Publications in 2014. I was allowed to set up a remote office here on the farm even though their head office is in London, Ontario. I write a weekly commodities marketing column, farmer profiles, and recently I started a series called The Robot Diaries – a monthly column about our transition to robotic farming.
Mama and her new baby.
I also write a regular feature on women in agriculture from across Ontario and Canada. Surprisingly, in 2017 there isn’t a lot of material on women in farming but it’s finally starting to take off. I want to show the industry what women do; that we aren’t always at home baking or just ‘helping’ out on the farm. Women have lead roles and do everything on the farm that needs to be done. Women have amazing skills and a passion for the industry.
Rob and Courtney finishing up chores.
One of the main things I miss from the city is the Internet connection. Rural Internet needs some help; it’s truly the lifeline for anyone who wants to work from home. We have been lucky and have made it work so far.
Valleykirk Farms located outside of Owen Sound.
Tell me about your farm and its transition to robots:
I’ll give you a brief history of Valleykirk Farms. Bob and Mary Ann Kirkconnell moved here from Dundas in 1982 and started the dairy farm. Rob Kirkconnell, their son, is the oldest of six kids in the family. The farm has 50 Holstein cows in a tie-stall barn that need to be milked twice a day, 365 days a year. We also work 300 acres of land that we use for feed for the cows. We grow hay, peas and oats, corn, and barley. Rob and Mary Ann work full-time on the farm while Bob is moving into retirement. I work on the farm more on a part-time basis as I have my off-farm job. In 2010, we incorporated the farm and started succession planning. It was at that time that my role on the farm began to increase. In 2015, we had to make a decision on production for the future as Bob and Mary Ann were thinking more seriously about their retirement years. Meanwhile, the barn wasn’t as labour efficient as it could be. We completed two years of research, talking to everyone in the industry, touring farms, meeting with accountants and lawyers and finally decided to move from a tie-stall to a robotic farm. I’m not kidding when I say every farmer in Grey County that we asked would sit down with us, let us walk through their barn, and give us advice. It was amazing to see how the Grey County farming community supports one another.
The team at Valleykirk Farms, Rob, June, Courtney, Mary Ann and Bob.
Robotic milking was chosen for labour efficiency. We needed a barn that could be run by one person. It was a huge investment and will create huge changes but it’s all very exciting. We started to retrofit our current barn in May and by the end of November we will have a fully robotic dairy barn with 60 cows. The cows will be milked on demand, 24/7 and have a barcode so the robot knows if the cows need to be milked or not.
The retrofit for a soon to be fully robotic dairy barn.
When you have the opportunity to get off the farm, what do you do for fun?
Operating a dairy farm, as I’ve mentioned, is a job completed 365 days a year. A robotic milker will free up Rob to do other farming operations, and may even allow us to have supper as a family at a regular hour! Basically getting away from the farm between April and November is hard, which of course is the nicest season to travel. However, some days we can get away from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm and we love to take little Grey County “stay-cations.” We will go to Coffin Ridge Winery for an afternoon and unwind. We both love to read and relax so we visit the Owen Sound Library often, which is such a beautiful space. We also go to Blue Mountain for lunch and some mini-putt to reconnect and have fun. We spent a weekend at the Irish Mountain Bed & Breakfast recently and had a meal at Andrew’s Roots in Meaford. I’m blown away by the quality of food and the commitment to local ingredients our restaurants have. There are so many options in just a 20 to 30 minute drive. We also love to take our dog, June, for walks in Harrison Park and grab an ice cream cone.
What would you say is your favourite thing about Grey County?
I don’t think I can name just ONE thing. We love where we live, we love our farm, our property, our farmhouse, our jobs, our cows – yes, we love our cows. I wouldn’t change any of it for a million dollars.