When an intrepid 18-year-old William Pope arrived in northwestern Ontario in 1897 ready to start a new life in agriculture, he couldn't help but search out echoes of home.
After immigrating from Brora, Scotland, Pope had spent some time working on farms in the Kincardine area in southern Ontario before riding the train all the way up to Rat Portage (what is now Kenora), and then heading south by steamboat, stoking the boiler to earn his way.
"He had a map of the district, apparently, and when he got immediately south of us, that was the last stop before Fort Frances at Big Fork,” recalled Kim Cornell, Pope's great-grandson.
"The captain told him if he was looking for a farm you'd better get off here, because that was the last stop before Fort Frances. So he did."
Pope walked another six miles inland before he found the homestead he was looking for: an idyllic acreage of undulating hills and a creek running through it, just like home.
Well over a century later, his legacy endures at Cornell Farms, a five-generation family cattle farm that produces and sells beef breeding stock and natural beef products.
After William Pope sold the farm out of the family, it remained under different ownership for seven years, until one day, Kim's dad, Gordon, got an offer to buy.
He agreed on the spot. But at that time, Gordon was newly married to Kim's mom, Jeannine, who was a town girl unaccustomed to farm life.
“He had to drive to town and tell her they weren’t going to live in town,” Kim chuckled.
Located in LaVallee Township in the Rainy River District, Cornell Farms is situated near the small community of Devlin, about four hours west of Thunder Bay near the Minnesota border.
Currently, the farm is run by Kim and his wife, Pat, but the operation is a true family endeavour.
Despite officially retiring years ago, Gordon still comes to the farm every day to help out with odd jobs.
Kim's son, Garnet, and daughter-in-law, Michelle, live just down the road, with Michelle specializing in social media marketing for the farm. The pair welcomed Charlotte, the newest member of the family, in 2019.
And though Kim's daughter, Rebecca, a large-animal veterinarian, lives in southern Ontario with her partner, Kelsey, the pair visit the farm often, applying their well-honed skills when needed.
Farm known for high-quality breed stock
Specializing in Polled Hereford and Red Angus cattle, Cornell Farms’ animals have been sold to producers in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Minnesota, Québec, the Maritimes, and Kazakhstan.
Over the decades, they've stuck to tried-and-true breeding principles that have helped them build a quality cow herd.
Yet the family is forward-thinking in its approach to farming, consistently open to trying a new approach or implementing modern ideas if they help sustain the business.
In 2003, the Cornells began selling sides of beef from the cattle they were no longer using for breeding.
“I grew up in the meat business, and I could see we had an opportunity to expand the meat business,” Pat said. “Not with finished beef, but with our cull cows."
When a partnership forged with other producers fell through, the Cornells decided to carry on alone. Just one month later, the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis hit, devastating the beef industry.
They were undeterred, and two years later, while selling at the Kenora farmers market, they caused a traffic jam as consumers lined up for the chance to take home a side of their quality, grass-fed beef.
“We plugged up the Trans-Canada (Highway) the first day we were there,” Kim laughed.
“Traffic was backed up for two miles,” Pat added. “It was an unbelievable response.”
Since then, they make regular appearances at markets in Sioux lookout and Red Lake, and the farmers markets have generated an important additional revenue stream for the producers.
“These farm markets have turned into a big, big part of our business," Kim said. “It's pretty important when you're trying to control your own destiny.”
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The arrival of COVID-19 a year ago presented another important lesson for the Cornells.
Though the family typically discourages farm visits – "We run a farm business, not a retail store,” Kim emphasized – between March 15 and April 15 last spring they offered a deal on ground beef, with consumers placing their orders online and later picking them up at the farm. The result was astounding.
“We sold a metric tonne of ground beef out of our freezer in a month,” marvelled Kim.
“That was half our summer supply,” Pat added.
More than just a one-off, demand for their beef has skyrocketed during the pandemic. On some days, they've unloaded three times what they've sold during their busiest days at market, Kim said.
He estimated the number of animals they processed through 2020 is up 50 per cent from the previous year, and they've even started bringing their animals to a second processor just to try to catch up with demand.
Concerned about access to supply following the closure of some meat facilities due to COVID-19, consumers got a big wakeup call about how food reaches their tables, Kim said.
"It's the best consumer education piece the agricultural community ever had, because people really had to sit back and think, ‘Where does my food come from?'” he noted. "They never ever had to examine that until the grocery shelves ran out."
Succession planning key to future success
Though Kim and Pat are still years away from retirement, they’re well into planning for the farm's future sustainability.
Several years ago, they enlisted the services of a lawyer, an accountant and a farm business manager to jointly come up with a succession plan that would ease the way for an eventual transfer to the next generation, Pat said.
In the past, too many farms were gobbled up by larger enterprises because younger farmers couldn't afford the costs associated with taking over the operation, she noted.
She and Kim want to ease that process for their successors.
“I think farmers traditionally have been remiss in planning for their retirement or planning for their exit,” she said.
“I think that we have a responsibility to the next generation to not make it so hard for them to come into farming, but we also owe it to them that we have an exit plan as well.”
The process has meant regular family meetings to discuss where the farm is headed, and careful handling of the farm’s resources to ensure its assets are sustainable over the long term, should William Pope's great-great-grandchildren decide to take over the farm.
“Between the four of them, they have an extraordinary skill set that could be used to expand the business and I think it's (our) job… to keep their vision alive and moving forward, so that when they decide whether they're going to be formally here or not, it's there,” Pat said.
In the meantime, the family has been proactive in modernizing the operation.
They have a consistent presence on social media, frequently posting insightful and engaging updates about farm life, and sharing photos and videos featuring their breed stock and the mouthwatering beef products they produce.
Clients now often forgo a visit to the farm altogether, buying breeding stock based on those images alone, something Pat calls “shocking.”
Since 2004, they've hosted a handful of cultural events – concerts, barn dances, theatre productions, and fundraisers – during the summer months, with performers who have hailed from Canada, England, Scotland and even Australia.
They've recently introduced a more permanent e-commerce portal onto their website, and there are other plans in the works.
All this is part of the greater effort to carry Cornell Farms into its next century of operation and keep their customers coming back for more.
“On the outside, we appear traditional,” Kim said. “But after you've been around for a little bit, you understand we're not quite so traditional.”
This article is one in a series focused on the rich histories, journeys and long-term successes of generational businesses in Northern Ontario.