As 25 ewes and a gangly baby llama mill around Christel Lanthier, her six-year-old daughter chats to her in French, the language they speak at home.
She’s wondering if you want to know anything about the cats, Christel translates for a reporter. Olivia explains the names of the three cats and shows off her stuffed dog “Mascot.”
Later she scampers up with an ice-cream pail of multicoloured eggs, which she’s just picked from the hens in the red barn.
“She’s so proud about (the farm),” Christel said during an interview in their bustling farmhouse. For school “show and tell,” Olivia always brings something farm related.
“There’s something really interesting with raising kids around the farm,” Christel said. They see the ewes give birth, and they see the lambs butchered later, she added. They help with chores. “I think that has an impact.”
Christel and husband Joey Fiola are raising their three girls, ages one to six, on his grandparent’s family farm — the one he worked on as a young kid, and kept going with his grandmother after his grandfather died.
They have about 120 acres, 30 sheep, two llamas and an assortment of chickens, rabbits and dogs and cats (three cats — don’t you know), second-hand machinery, and a will to pull a living from land.
In the ’50s, Joey’s grandparents Louis and Jeanne got married and moved onto the farmyard parents Ferdinand and Noellie Fiola had bought for them in the francophone community of Ste. Genevieve. They farmed cattle until retirement, then began growing and selling hay.
Joey grew up helping on the farm.
“Call it a family farm because it was always the family involved,” he said.
As he grew, he gained built-in experience and know-how. Louis did his own construction and as many mechanical repairs as he was able, so Joey learned how to do that too.
Sometimes Louis was gone, and something would break. Joey would rush to figure out how to repair it before his grandpa came back.
When Joey was 16, Louis died. He, Jeanne and an uncle kept the farm going. He went on to take his agriculture diploma at the University of Manitoba from 2001 to 2003, but never truly left the farm. He was always coming back in the evening or on weekends to help.
Christel lived on a little hobby farm in St. Pierre, where her maternal family was from, when she was young but grew up in Winnipeg. She studied fine art, including fibre arts, in Alberta.
When Jeanne turned 80, she wanted to leave the farm. At the same time, Joey and Christel were looking for a house in Winnipeg. Joey’s grandma told them to buy her house instead. They moved onto the farm in 2012.
Making their own way
They were happy to take the family farm, but they would have found a way to farm no matter what, Christel said.
They bought 120 acres, and with it came an assortment of outbuildings and equipment, and three 1950s Allis-Chalmers tractors.
“Everything is falling apart,” Christel said.
They agreed to keep their day jobs to finance the farm. Joey is a manager at a plumbing and heating company, and Christel does contract work and photography in the francophone community.
Since then, they’ve made the farm their own. They grow hay and oats, and have experimented with Red Fife wheat. They added five sheep, now multiplied to 25 ewes and five rams of various breeds — Rideau Arcott, Rambouilett and Romney crosses. From the flock, they sell whole lambs for meat, lamb cuts, breeding stock, fleeces, yarn and products made of sheep tallow.
Why sheep? Joey was looking for livestock to add into his cropping system. Christel, with her fibre art background, heartily agreed on the woolly critters.
The wool they produce is carded and spun just down the road at Long Way Homestead, a small farm and wool-processing operation. Then Christel colours the yarn with natural dyes like homegrown indigo and packages it based on the sheep that produced it. Each skein of wool is labelled with the name and picture of the sheep that grew it.
The crops and animals are raised near organic and with many regenerative principles — they use oats as a cover crop when seeding hayfields. They bale graze the sheep, compost the leftover hay and manure, and spread it back onto the land.
At first they spread the manure by tractor bucket, or in an old stoneboat. Now they have a manure spreader.
“That’s kind of the tricky part with the small, family farms,” Christel said. Small-scale equipment, if they can get it, is old — but still fixable, Joey added.
Their combine is far too big for their small fields. It takes more time to tune up, calibrate, and clean afterward than it does to actually harvest.
The farm is about as big as they can manage with the buildings and equipment they have, so Christel and Joey are focused on diversifying and getting as much as they can from their small farm.
Christel wants to learn to tan the sheep skins to sell. They’ll continue to grow specialty crops like Red Fife wheat, and they’ll add a few more sheep.
They also hope to dabble in on-farm education. They’ve hosted school tours and really enjoyed them.
“Just as we’re showing our kids, showing other kids what small family farms are like is really cool,” Christel said.