Sister pact

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Photo by Kaz Novak, The Hamilton Spectator

Heather and Jennifer Peart were a little apologetic at the very beginning of the interview in the living room of their family home. They’d had a hectic and messy morning and were just finishing getting cleaned up.

About 90 minutes earlier, the sisters had helped one of their cows deliver a healthy new calf.

Heather, 26, and Jennifer, 29, are no strangers to caring for cattle from birth to death and everything in between. They’ve been feeding calves and milking cows on their family’s dairy farm in Hagersville almost since they could stand up. Hard physical work is what they do. Every day.

Now there is a bit of an extra buzz about them around Ontario’s agricultural community.

Jennifer and Heather together are the subject of the November 2014 Faces of Farming calendar. It’s a glossy publication that features a different real Ontario farmer or farmers — and their story — every month. The Pearts are particularly happy they were given November. “That’s the Royal month, when the Royal Winter Fair is held,” says Heather. “We love that fair.”

Both sisters say their friends have seen the calendar and many want autographed copies of it.

“The publishers came to us about being in the calendar. They’re seeking diversity and had never had sisters before,” says Jennifer. “We felt strongly about being in it because as producers we need to connect with consumers.”

The women have known all their lives that they wanted to be dairy farmers. Their great-grandfather first bought the homestead back in 1920, and they are the fourth generation raising cows here. Their dad, Doug, and mom, Mary Ann, currently own the 120-hectare farm and a total of 200 head of cattle, but Heather and Jennifer, underscored their passion for farming several years ago during their university days.

The sisters took their own money that they had saved and bought the first of three parcels of land eventually totalling 48 hectares close to the family farm. They started growing grain — corn, rye, wheat (they sell off the grain and keep the stalks for straw) — and began buying their own dairy cows. Heather notes she was just 18 at the time, in her first semester at University of Guelph (where she eventually graduated with a four-year degree in animal sciences), and had just got her first credit card. Jennifer was still working on her agricultural business degree.

Today the sisters are legal owners of 25 head of cattle each, Jerseys and Holsteins bought at auction, but everyone in the family cares for all the cows, feeding them, cleaning their stalls, hiring a veterinarian as needed and a nutritionist to help balance the animals’ diet. “The cows have a better diet than we do,” Jennifer jokes.

All that care has won the Pearts three national “master breeder” awards. Only about 20 such titles are given each year to dairy farmers across Canada, based on the health and production of the cow and its genetic heritage. It’s sort of the Stanley Cup of dairy farming, and the cows are the all-stars.

The Pearts’ cows are milked twice a day, at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m., using modern sterile mechanical equipment. The raw milk is pumped directly into a temperature-controlled steel tank in the barn. Every other day a transportation company picks up about 3,500 litres and takes the milk to nearby Hewitt’s Dairy for pasteurization and packaging.

“We’re caring for our cows to make a safe food product. It takes a lot of time and energy,” says Heather, who now works full-time on the farm.

“We’re making a healthy product for people to eat and drink,” adds Jennifer, who beyond the farm has a full-time job with Farm Credit Canada in Simcoe.

When they aren’t busy with the cows, the sisters are renovating a house next door to the farm where they plan to live. Jennifer loves sports — especially the Toronto Maple Leafs — and is a cattle judge at 4-H club expositions. Heather is “into all kinds of crafts, sewing and baking.

“We don’t have time for much more,” she adds.

Originally appeared in the Hamilton Spectator

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