Retired couple map out new career in sheep farming

Jackie MacDonald, in the wool shop she and her husband opened last year in back of their Aspen Grove Sheep Farm in Stanley Section.

by Gayle Wilson
Lighthouse Now
Bridgewater, NS

While more and more Nova Scotians are reaching retirement age, if Jackie and Peter MacDonald of Stanley Section are anything to go by, not all of them are mapping out a sedentary life on the porch or travelling to far-flung areas of the world.

Retired from their day jobs as of this year, they’ve strategically taken what began as a sheep hobby farm near Yarmouth with eight animals nine years ago to a full-time, post-employment sheep breeding and wool-supply business with some 40 animals in Lunenburg County.

Even still, having moved to their historical farm just off the Lower Branch Road in 2008, they’re not looking at their Aspen Grove Sheep Farm so much as a big money earner, but rather as a sustainable way to indulge in their interests as they move forward on a new path in their lives.

Jackie, for one, is grateful she and her husband have their pensions on the side to supplement the hobby-cum-business.

“It’s not like we have a vision of making a lot of money.” she told LighthouseNOW in the dining room of their house which dates back to the mid-1800s.

“It was a passion, and I’m hoping to see that it will be profitable. But small-scale farming in Nova Scotia is not very profitable. I can’t imagine how people do it if they don’t have other incomes.”

Nonetheless, even Jackie admits she has a few things to learn about the industry. She was surprised to hear, for example, that LighthouseNOW recently ran a report indicating millennials are a growing force in Nova Scotia’s agriculture industry, and that they are adopting innovative approaches to land and equipment management and marketing.

The MacDonalds both come from farming families, however their parents had long since stopped farming and passed on before they bought their first sheep while in Yarmouth in 2004. So they had neither family land nor equipment to draw upon.

Learning the ropes of sheep rearing, and doing the farm work along side of their full-time jobs, they kept things as simple as possible.

Then and now, their focus has been on Texel, Romney and Lincoln sheep – Texel for cross-breeding stock and Romney and the rare Lincoln sheep, with their long-locks, for their fleece.

Until April of this year, Jackie worked in the health services industry. Two months later, Peter retired from the Department of Natural Resources.

“It’s hard to do anything on the side,” says Jackie, adding, “We focused our extra energy on making sure the sheep were healthy and well fed.”

So, in time they learned it was more energy and cost efficient to buy hay rather than grow their own.

And they’re keen supporters of the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) program, which afforded them a steady supply of inexpensive farm help.

At the same time, it has given them the chance to engage with people from abroad without having to leave the farm.

They recognize a big opportunity exists in rearing lambs for the local meat industry. According to Jackie, Nova Scotian lamb is renowned for its flavour. And the Northumberland Lamb Marketing Cooperative can’t get enough to meet the demands of restaurants and grocery stories.

“They pay the going rate for lambs and they’re literally begging for lamb every week,” she says.

“If we had a hundred lambs, we could sell them all.”

According to Jackie, typically a young, unregistered weaned lamb of two or three months might go for about $200.

However, while they realize raising lamb for the meat industry is potentially lucrative, it’s not a farming path they’re keen to follow, preferring to stick to breeding sheep and, instead, bolstering the Nova Scotian sheep gene pool and natural wool market.

“Peter finds it more satisfying,” Jackie says of her husband. “And I’m supporting it.”

She’s quick to add that sheep are benevolent creatures. “And I really like them.”

Jackie points out that many Nova Scotians may not realize it, but much of the yarn sold commercially in the province actually comes from abroad.

She explains that Merino sheep, “the standard for wool softness,” do not fare well in Canada’s climate.

Moreover, while there are a number of small-scale sheep farmers, she notes that local milling options are limited. The larger commercial woolen mills, such as MacAuslands Woollen Mills of Prince Edward Island, have a 136 kg. (300 lb.) minimum, while smaller mills place a premium on small orders or have long waiting lists.

Last year the MacDonalds opened a wool shop in back of their house, dedicated to showcasing their fleece and yarns.

Their long-wool fleece sells for $15 a pound. However, the couple is looking to create value-added wool products to increase their returns.

They also hope to diversify the gene pool of Lincoln sheep in Canada in particular.

Prone to disease, the species is rare internationally, and there are few Lincolns in Canada. The MacDonalds want to bring in new blood to keep the species alive and well in this country.

The largest of British sheep, the Lincoln was developed specifically to produce the heaviest, longest and most lustrous fleece of any breed in the world. They were exported to a number of countries, with the versatile fleece widely in demand for spinning, weaving and other crafts.

The Lincoln Longwool Sheep Breeders Association of the UK notes the sheep is a “vulnerable” rare breed in category three on the RBST Watchlist for 2017,2018. The list is a document showing the rarity of the UK’s native breeds of mammal.

“We currently have a population of less than 800 Breeding Ewes,” notes the association’s website.

“We really need your support if this breed is to survive,” it adds.

Sheepish Green, an Ontario farm dedicated to promoting bio-diversity in agriculture which raises endangered breeds of livestock, reports that fewer than 30 Lincoln breeding ewes are registered today in Canada.

“Like 90 percent of the animal farm breeds that once roamed Canada’s farms a few years ago, the Lincoln Longwool sheep is on the verge of disappearing,” Sheepish Green’s owners warn on their website.

Here in Nova Scotia, the old MacDonalds’ farm is looking to rectify that.