A cold wind gusts over the frozen ruts of the wintering yard as Randy Eros guides his ewes into a holding pen with the aid of his sheep dog.
“Pitou, couche (down). Couche!” Pitou, still a pup, needs plenty of guidance, which Randy calls to him in French.
With the ewes safely penned, the black and white pup hunkers down to guard the gate. Randy straightens the feeding troughs before filling them with barley.
This year he’s feeding more barley than usual. His hayfields, usually highly productive, only yielded two cuts last year.
“I’m trying to stretch all the hay I have,” he told the Manitoba Co-operator over coffee in the house he shares with partner Solange Dusablon near Ste. Anne.
Pitou, heeding the command to “reste (rest),” lies by the reporter’s chair.
“This fall is an example of how far that (weather) can push people and how really difficult it makes life,” Randy said. Lamb prices were also dismal. “If you were solely reliant on the price of market lambs… there’s probably a lot of people hurting this year.”
Randy and Solange say the value they add to their lambs and wool is the cushion that’s got them through hard times like this — that and tenacity.
“No shortage of that here,” Randy said.
Value added is critical
Solange’s parents owned a dairy farm when she was a child, and also raised sheep. They sold the farm and moved to St. Boniface when Solange was a young teenager, but they kept a 14-acre piece along the Seine River. As a young woman, Solange bought that land from her parents and it became the basis of their farm.
As a youngster, Solange learned knitting, spinning and weaving from her mother. As an adult and a fibre artist she was unsatisfied with the quality of wool she could find for the garments she makes. So, in 1983 she and Randy bought a few sheep.
They didn’t intend to start a commercial sheep farm, but, “The thing with sheep is, if you get a ram and you get a ewe, they’re going to expand,” Randy said.
They bought another 90 acres of land and rent another 80 acres.
With 250 ewes, they raise between 500 and 600 lambs per season. They sell wool, market lambs and whole freezer lambs in the fall. They also direct market lamb at the St. Norbert Farmers’ Market, where they also sell the wool garments Solange makes — parkas, vests, mittens, slippers and tuques.
“By no means a big farm, but it’s the size of the properties here,” Randy said. “We wanted to figure out how do you make a living on that small acreage of land, and for us the sheep was the right choice and value added was the right way to do it.”
Randy said for many shepherds, selling wool barely covers the cost of shearing. Selling garments, including wholesale across Western Canada, increases their profit.
“Value added and direct marketing are no less work than primary agriculture, just different,” Randy added.
A producer has very little control over the price of market lambs, he explained. By direct marketing products they can set prices, and as long as they factor in the extra work and costs of custom work, they can generate a more consistent return.
While multiple revenue streams have helped, Randy said their resilience is closely tied to his, Solange’s and son Michelle’s commitment to the farm — something extremely clear in the spring when it’s all hands on deck for shearing and then lambing.
Mentorship is key
While Solange had experience with livestock, Randy was a city boy born and raised in Transcona. He worked for the City of Winnipeg in recreation and community development until 2002, while Solange carried the farm.
Farming had a steep learning curve for him, he said.
“But you have a good neighbour,” Solange reminded him.
Randy agreed. His neighbour taught him a lot about mechanics.
“Especially when you start farming… very few of us are going out and buying new machinery,” he said. “You can spend more time under your baler than on your baler.”
Randy and Solange also quickly became involved in provincial and national sheep organizations. Randy would later chair both groups.
“’Cause that exposes you to a lot of people who have a lot of knowledge,” Randy said. “I’ve seen a lot of sheep operations and learned a lot about what works, and maybe a little bit about what doesn’t.”
While their operation is at capacity, Randy and Solange said they strive for continuous improvement. They’ve also begun transitioning leadership to the next generation.
“Looking forward five years, I would hope that Mich is pretty much telling us what to do,” Randy said.
He said he’d had a laugh recently when he’d realized he needed a tool. In the past he would have found someone to borrow it from, but now he thought of those who’d let him borrow things when he was getting started.
“I’m the guy who should have that in my shop,” he said.