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Elgersmas pull together to keep their family farm

Alice Guthrie Published on 31 December 2012
Boa Vista Farms

The Elgersma family arrived in British Columbia by a circuitous route. Alice was born in Holland, then moved to Brazil, where she met her husband, Charlie Elgersma.

In 1967, they married and immigrated to Canada, where they established a small farm near Jarvis, Ontario.

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This farm was expropriated by the Ontario government for an industrial complex and slumber city just a few years later.

Unable to find a suitable replacement farm in the area, they moved in 1974 with their young daughter, Trudy, and son, Steve, to British Columbia.

As committed Christians, it was important to the Elgersmas to be close to both a church and a Christian school. The Chilliwack area provided these needs, and they settled there. They named their new place Boa Vista, which means “Beautiful View” in Portuguese. They welcomed their third child, Marvin in 1979.

When Marvin was 17, Charlie was diagnosed with a type of leukemia, and advised to stay out of the barn, as it was felt his weakened immune system could not handle that environment.

Marvin and his mom were left to handle the farm. After he underwent treatment, Charlie was able to resume his share of the work. Due to his earlier involvement,

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Marvin was poised to take over the farm. They purchased a bit more land, and all seemed well. However, in 2002 Charlie’s leukemia returned, requiring a stem cell transplant. This time, Marvin took over full operation of the farm, and planned to assume full ownership in time.

Tragedy struck the family in 2006; Marvin was returning from a weekend away when a transport truck flipped and careened out of control into oncoming traffic. Marvin’s truck was struck, and he and a friend were killed.

The family was devastated with the loss of their son and brother, but strengthened by an outpouring of support from friends and neighbouring young farmers, who showed up not only to share their grief, but to assist with the farm during that difficult time.

This was awesome for the family to experience, and although Marvin is much missed, they believe the Lord continues to give strength to them.

Charlie, feeling unable to resume handling the dairy, made plans to disperse the herd and sell the quota. Older son Steve, owner of a construction business that was doing well, felt that everything he knew was changing – he had lost his little brother, and now the farm he grew up on would be changing.

After much prayer, he spoke with his wife, Christine. Both felt that he needed to talk to his dad about going home to the farm. Steve and Charlie agreed to a one-year trial period, a year where Steve faced a huge learning curve, as he had been in construction for 15 years.

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This had put him out of touch with the dairy industry, which had changed tremendously in that time. Fortunately Charlie, again in good health, was there to help, advise and support.

Steve faced a number of problems. The old barns on the farm – an old hip roof with an added-on freestall loafing barn and an aging double parlour – were already too crowded to allow expansion, and there was no good way to expand them efficiently without losing out significantly on cow comfort.

The operation was too big for one man to handle alone, and not big enough to justify a full-time employee. Charlie was helping, but Steve felt he was doing too much work. In addition, milking 80 cows in the parlour was taking too much time.

Elgersmas Boa Vista Farms
The decision was made to build a new facility. The new barn, built in 2012, measures 130 feet by 220 feet, and features six rows of 20 head-to-head freestalls, allowing space for 120 cows (although the milking herd has only 80 cows at this time, plans are to expand as quota becomes available).

Each stall measures 45 inches by eight feet. Feeding is done along the perimeter, with drive-through alleys where it can be delivered by tractor and a side delivery wagon.

All milking cows are in one group in the centre of the barn, with dry cows accommodated separately.

Two robotic milking units were installed in the new barn, and cows can choose their favourite. Steve is pleased with the change.

“I love them ... working really good ... five-litre-per-cow average more than in the other barn,” he claimed, although adding that improvements in cow comfort and ventilation may also have contributed to the improvement in production.

In addition to the jump in production, the robots allow much more flexibility for the family. No longer do they need to be in the barn at set times, which makes it possible to go to functions they had previously been unable to attend.

Ventilation is accomplished by use of side wall curtains and a peak curtain, along with high ceilings. They have not installed fans, as they get good cross-breezes in their area, but will install them if they feel they are needed.

Boa Vista Farms
The cows recline on waterbeds – the Elgersmas had previously tried these in the old barn, and were confident that they worked well.

They find they use 75 percent less bedding than before waterbeds were used. Sawdust is their bedding of choice in the new barn.

Boa Vista is a small farm, only 89 acres. This makes some accommodations necessary. For example, the Elgersmas do not raise their own replacement heifers.

Years earlier, Charlie had sent his heifers to be custom raised, but found it more economical to purchase fresh first- lactation heifers instead.

Steve has continued this practice, purchasing young quality animals, and not taking up his own limited space. “Works well for us,” he stated. This is a commercial herd – some cows are registered purebreds, others are not. This doesn’t matter to Steve.

Cows are housed indoors year-round, eliminating need for pasture area. The Elgersmas grow mostly corn, and purchase other grains and hay.

This is more cost efficient, as they have found their area does not grow alfalfa well. The Elgersmas prepare their fields for crops, but actual cropping work is custom done. “One day in and out,” Steve said.

There are no outside employees – the family manages everything needed. Christine helps with book-keeping, as does Alice and Trudy. Charlie does feeding, and keeps an eye on everything. Trudy’s sons help out occasionally, when extra help is required.

Steve’s two sons, Tim, 10, and Ben, 8, are still a bit young for full involvement. They go to the local Christian school, the same one Steve attended as a child. Tim loves hockey, and plays on the Chilliwack Christian Junior Hockey League.

Ben is interested in karate. Christine enjoys reading in her spare time, and Steve spends his leisure time fishing or riding his motor bike.

The farm is a featured stop in the upcoming B.C. Dairy Expo farm tour on Jan. 23. Steve anticipates a crowd of 600 to 800 people that day.

(Editor’s note: Click here for more information on the tours.)

Perhaps Steve’s biggest challenge in returning to the farm was in re-learning how to farm, as many changes had occurred in the industry. People assumed he knew more than he actually did – he had to learn early to ask for explanations from feed representatives, for example. There are no regrets though – he couldn’t go back to construction.

“This is where I was called to be. This is where I need to be,” he affirmed. He finds joy in “being able to visually see the fruits of my labour ... reach goals I’ve made for myself,” he added. But best of all is being with family. “I feel real blessed to be able to work alongside my dad ... he’s still teaching me things.”  PD

Alice Guthrie is a freelance writer from Hagersville, Ontario.

PHOTO
TOP: Three generations of the Elgersma family keep Boa Vista Farm going through life’s ups and downs. From left are Alice and Charlie, Steve and Christine. Ben (left) and Tim are pictured in front.

MIDDLE: The Elgersmas built a new barn in 2012. It measures 130 feet by 220 feet, and features six rows of 20 head-to-head freestalls, allowing space for 120 cows.

BOTTOM: Milking and dry cows are under one roof. The milking pen is serviced by two robotic milking units to relieve labour needs for the 80-cow dairy. Photos courtesy of Boa Vista Farm.

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