Some might have thought something biblical was unfolding at the Neepawa fairgrounds earlier this month, where a sign directed the crowds to “Gathering of the Flock” and “Run for the Gate.”
Indeed, the events of August 13 to 15 may yet prove to be a kind of “revival” for its host groups – the Manitoba Sheep Association and the Prairie Shepherds 4-H Club.
This month they put on Gathering of the Flock, a much expanded event over the MSA’s traditional summer sale, to link existing and experienced sheep producers both with new market opportunities, and with young sheep producers just getting started.
The Prairie Shepherds 4-H Club, representing about two dozen young sheep producers in combined clubs across Manitoba, initially approached the MSA about trying a combined sale and sheep show. The events included a wool competition and wool auction, stock dog trials, chef-prepared lamb banquet and several speakers.
It was an opportunity to build some new, mutually beneficial relationships in the sector, said Gathering of the Flock chair Angela Viola, a Rossburn-area sheep producer.
“We wanted our young producers to be introduced to the producers who’ve been around for some time, and also to let our Manitoba sheep producers see there is a young group of people who are going to influence the future of the sheep association,” she said.
The event mirrors a strategy taken up across the country, where the sheep sector overall is eager to woo more producers to the fold.
In Manitoba, they especially want to build up their ranks; producer numbers have been dropping in recent years, even as sheep have been relatively profitable compared to other livestock, and demographic shifts and other trends are boosting demand for locally produced lamb and wool products.
One of the big draws of Gathering of the Flock weekend were stock dog trial clinics and challenges provided courtesy of the Manitoba Stock Dog Association.
They wanted to familiarize these young producers with the benefits of working with well-trained stock dogs, said Lorna Wall, a Poplarfield sheep and stock dog producer who helped organize that part of the show.
These young people’s flocks will have expanded to 30 or more animals by the time they’re in their mid-to late teens and it’s when you get those bigger flocks you really need these dogs to manage them well, Wall said.
Participants could learn the basics during junior dog trial clinics and had opportunities to participate in Beginner’s Luck challenges through to open classes for more experienced dogs and handlers.
The stock dog was an attraction to the general public, as were the 4-H shows, to which area families notably brought their own kids to watch.
Another component of the show was the invitation taken up by fibre artists, knitters and spinners to attend and link up with Manitoba farmers who have fleeces to sell. Kim Streker of Sheeples Fine Fibres in Inwood offered workshops on wool felting.
Winnipeg author, knitwear designer and fibre artist Joanne Seiff spoke on marketing fleeces.
“We’re hoping that we can start to bring together the wool producers with a different kind of user to add more value to our wool and to sheep as a whole,” said show secretary Gerry Oliver of that part of the Gathering.
A link on MSA’s website will be developed to help more Manitobans source local fleeces direct from producers selling them.
Meanwhile, judges of Saturday’s weekend’s 4-H invitational, junior and fun show classes kept up a constant rapport with their audience on what they were looking for in good stock.
“I’m very interested in this,” said Rossburn teen Sierra Viola, who took part in the afternoon’s shows and whose market lamb was the top seller ($250) at the MSA sale the next day. She began four years ago raising a small Suffolk flock on her family’s farm and says she hopes there’s a future in this for her.
It’s precisely due to the encouragement her daughter’s getting from other sheep farmers that’s piqued her interest, her mother said.
“She’s taking it seriously and it’s thanks to individual producers who went to her and said ‘just keep going’ and ‘these are things you can do to improve.’ They all encouraged her.”
Any revenues left over after the event’s expenses are paid will be turned over to the Prairie Shepherds’ 4-H Club. That will help fund a trip to a Nova Scotia rally next year where young Manitoban sheep producers will be able to connect with others like themselves.
They hope this is just the beginning of Gathering of the Flock.
“The response we’ve had to this was amazing,” Viola said. “There was a lot of interest. We’re hoping that we grow from this.”
To see more Gathering of the Flock show and sale photos log on to: www.manitobacooperator.ca and then click on multimedia.
“We wanted our young producers to be introduced to the producers who’ve been around for some time, and also to let our Manitoba sheep producers see there is a young group of people who are going to influence the future of the sheep association.”
– ANGELA VIOLA, SHOW CHAIR