One of the most exciting parts of bringing Chipotle to Canada was the opportunity to develop relationships with some of the great farmers, ranchers, and other food producers from the Great White North. One of our favourites is Beretta Farms, who provides some of the most delicious beef and chicken we’ve ever encountered. Joshua Brau, Manager of Chipotle’s Food With Integrity program, recently chatted with Cynthia Beretta to dive a little deeper into the story of how the Berettas’ family farm and business came to be. What he found was a truly inspiring story.
Whether she knew it or not, Cynthia Beretta was destined for sustainable farming greatness. Starting right out of college in 1992, Cynthia and her husband Michael took an unconventional path to farming. With no experience and a whole lot of luck, they took a leap of faith and started what is now known as Beretta Farms.
Cynthia and Mike Beretta in 1993 before they were married, along with a family friend. The sign reads Bercassi Farm, the combination of Beretta and Fracassi—Cynthia's maiden name. This is the beginning stages of what is now the Beretta Farms.
Josh: Let's begin with your story. How did Beretta Farms get started?
Cynthia: When Mike and I met, he was a professional soccer player with a team in Toronto, and I was a student at York University studying psychology. So, we were the farthest thing from being farmers and neither of us really came from farming backgrounds. He had a convertible jeep, and we were on one of our first dates and the top was down. It was June and someone had just spread liquid manure on a field nearby, and the smell, as you can imagine, was not a very nice smell. Mike, as we’re driving by takes these big, huge whiffs of this manure and said ‘Wow, doesn’t that smell really good?’ And I always joke that’s when I should have run the other way, but I didn’t. I was 21 and very young and madly in love.
JB: That sounds romantic!
CB: So romantic…Anyway, he had this thing since he was a kid that he always wanted to raise pigs. So we bought two little pigs from a local farmer close to my parents. And these two little pigs, Charlotte and Wilbur, became the base of what Beretta Farms is now.
We bought our first farm when we got married in 1993. We truly weren’t farmers, so it was very much a trial and error process for us. We were really lucky and fortunate to have moved into an area, Southwestern Ontario, that had an active farming community. So over the first few years we had a lot of help from our neighbors and we made a lot of mistakes. I think our neighbors thought we were crazy.
Mike and Cynthia began developing their farming know-how with help from the surrounding farming community in Huron County, Ontario. But in 1995, a disaster destroyed what the Berettas had built in their first three years of hard work, leaving their farming fate uncertain.
JB: I know that you faced some serious challenges in the early years of the business. Can you tell me what happened?
CB: Our first-born son Thomas was born in 1995. He was born in April, and that October of ‘95 we had a devastating barn fire on our farm—we lost everything. We were kids. We were 25 and 26, not coming from a farming background, putting all this energy and effort into the last few years trying to make this work, and overnight it was all gone.
We were surrounded by an Old Order Mennonite community who are a horse and buggy community–they don’t have telephones, they don’t drive cars, and have no electricity. A neighbor said ‘why don’t you approach them and maybe they’ll help rebuild the barn.’ So Michael went to visit this community and visited a man named Alan, and told him what had happened. He said ‘Well, I’ll be in touch.’ I think I would call it an interview, I don’t know what it was. I think they were trying to establish whether or not Michael and I were sincere and really needed their help.
I guess we passed, because on Michael’s 27th birthday in April of 1996, we had an old-fashioned barn raising at our farm. There were about 100 Mennonite men that worked, and the barn went up in a day–it was really incredible. When we tried to pay them, they wouldn’t take money from us. It was a very emotional time in our life, because if these neighbors didn’t help us, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
100 Mennonite men, rebuilding the Beretta barn piece by piece in April 1996.
JB: Are you still in touch with any of the farmers who built the barn?
CB: To this day they still farm for us. They still raise cattle and pigs for us. None of them are on contract, it’s all a handshake and they still all deal directly with Mike. It is especially important that they continue to farm because farming is a dying art in Canada and the U.S. I’m sure you know that. When you ask a kindergarten class what they want to be when they grow up none of them say they want to be a farmer. I think it’s a real testament to what we do best—building relationships with our farmers and ranchers so they can continue to do what they do best, and we can take care of the business part of it.
Thanks to the partnerships they developed in their community, Beretta Farms grew to become a network of like-minded farmers and ranchers raising pigs, chickens, and cattle throughout southwest Ontario and Alberta. Through many ups and downs, the Beretta family and their partners have done things their way, despite the growing trend of raising animals in factory-like conditions in both the U.S. and Canada.
Cattle grazing on pasture.
JB: What is your approach to raising animals? How have you done things differently from what the commodity producers in Canada?
CB: We try to keep cattle on one ranch as long as possible until they go to the feedyard. It’s very rare that cows and calves actually get to stay together. Typically calves are weaned at a very young age. On our ranches, most calves remain on the ranch where they are born until the last three months of their life, when they move to a feedyard, to be finished on grain. Some of the meat from these cattle—which are never given hormones or antibiotics—is supplied as steak to Chipotle.
JB: What happens in the winter? Some farmers justify raising animals in confinement year-round by claiming the animals will get cold in the winter. Can you talk a little about how you and other farmers in the Beretta network deal with the harsh Canadian winters?
CB: The chicken raised for your Toronto restaurants has access to the outside from April to the end of October, but in the winter months that’s just not possible, especially for chickens. That’s too harsh on their small bodies. But cattle are outside year round. They have windbreaks and there’s shelter outside for them in the winter months, but for the most part they’re out on the range. I would say it's not a problem because these animals have been outside from birth. Their immune systems are much stronger than what conventionally raised animals are like.
The Beretta family in 2014. From Left to Right: Marcus, Lieschen, Mike, Cynthia, and Thomas Beretta.
JB: That makes sense. Anything else you’d like to add?
CB: An interesting fact…I don’t know if you want to mention it or not, but my mother said to me that she always thought I would do something that had to do with caring for the land–I was born on the very first Earth Day. April 22, 1970. She says I was always destined, I don’t know, to be some kind of earth child.
And with that, it became obvious that the Beretta family was, in fact, destined to be a pioneering force in the Canadian farming community. Right from the day Cynthia was born.