Tuesday, December 20, 2011

December AM writing

Keeping the Skills and Knowledge on the Land
Over the years it seems I have always been one of the younger farmers and ranchers in the room. The problem is, it is still the case, and I am not getting any younger. True there are younger ones coming along but for the most part many of us have children who are interested in many things but sadly none of them are agricultural in nature. The next generation today defines themselves by what they do in their life, not what they do for a living, as we do. Many of these sons and daughters of agriculture talk fondly of growing up on the ranch and would move back to it so long as they had weekends and holidays off. Like that will happen! So farms get bigger and bigger with fewer owners and people working on them. More and bigger machinery does the work and many of the old skills are lost.
I know of grain farmers in the Prairies who are told by the company who supplies their chemicals and fertilizers when to spray, feed and weed their crops, and which day the products are available for pick up. The company field agent drives around with the farmer checking his crops and “advises” him on what to do next and which is the best product. The same company has contracted the crop at a locked in price so the farmer has to sell to them even when the market changes and prices go up. Here was me thinking the days of Serfdom were over. Well I guess they are, as the farmer still owns his farm and he pays the mortgage and taxes, but with all his inputs and crops handled by the only company in a 50-100 mile radius one could hardly call it a free market. Similar things happen in the pork, chicken and dairy industries, vertical integration they call it. Much has been written about the above from Philosophical, Economic or Political perspectives, but the one issue I fear that has been over looked and in the long term is the most important, is the loss of the knowledge base and agricultural husbandry skills that has been passed from one generation to the next.
Many of these cannot be learned from a book, much less taught over the Internet, and even a University lecture would come up short. These things are learned by doing and working along side skilled men (or women) who act as mentors and teachers. Like an apprentice of old, over seen by a Guild of the specific trade. From the age of 3 till 16 I walked, talked and helped my father on the farm soaking up all his skills and those from before who had taught him. Along with Livestock Husbandry, crop and soil management skills I learnt about “cutting and laying” hedges, making dry stone walls, “Coppicing” trees to produce fence posts and pegs, weaving and making hurdles for sheep (a type of fencing panel). Latter while working on large estate farms I was the boy as the average age of the workers was 55 plus. There I learnt more than all my time at College from those wise and weather hardened farm labourers. All these skills teach self-reliance and sustainability ensuring the continuation of small and family farms. No wonder they were dropped from the curriculum of modern Colleges and Universities who receive large sums of money from the agribusiness companies, who’s profits are linked to a vertically integrated system with a weakened knowledge base at the farm gate.
With many small farms in the Southern Interior and nowhere to go for workshops and training or mentorship I felt there was a need for an agricultural training program. I started workshops in a small way two years ago and they were well received but with all my extra workload this year I let them slip. Now we have the Mt Ida Hall to teach in and lots of critters outside to work with I plan to teach sustainable agricultural skills again this coming spring. If you or someone you know has a particular topic you wish covered let me know on the email below and I will put a class together. If you or a group you represent needs a talk on a specific topic I can help with, the same applies. Heaven forbid that I am the last farmer/rancher in my family, but if so I hope to pass on my skills and knowledge to the next generation, if only to foil big business and keep small farms and farmers viable and local food tasty! Have a great Christmas and all the best in the New Year.
Rob farms in the city and can be reached at harmonioushomestead@live.ca

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Nov Friday AM article

Natural Capital

The term ‘Natural Capital’ is not something you hear often in the Shuswap, so I was pleasantly surprised to see one of our local gentlemen running for council mention it at a meeting in a local coffee house recently. Natural Capital is the stuff that gets in the way to spoil the view, you know mountains, lakes, flora and fauna, the stuff we seem to have plenty of and after a while of living here take for granted as we muddle along in our busy lives. It’s the stuff that made people move here in the first place and the reason folks still relocate to Salmon Arm and its surrounding area today. With development being touted as the lifeblood of a community, it seems that any development at any cost is a good thing and we should be grateful. Sadly development chips away at our Natural Capital and once that capital is spent or lost we cannot get it back. Don’t get me wrong I am not against development as many great things have happened here over the last 30 or so years. I, as does the above-mentioned Politician who rang a warning bell in the coffee house, feel we have reached a tipping point and need to better manage our Natural Capital. Not only to preserve it but to cash in on our assets and make them more a part of our economy. Bringing industry and jobs to Salmon Arm is popular but often is not sustainable due to logistics, lack of affordable housing for staff etc. Where as using imagination and hard work to create jobs from our Natural Capital can produce sustainable, eco and social friendly jobs and businesses making use of what we have.
It’s not just the lake folks, we are more than that. The City of Salmon Arm is big and two thirds of it is agricultural reserve, farmland that folks drive through every day on their way to work, passing through to somewhere else or casually touring around the Shuswap taking in the views. We all know that large scale modern agriculture can be hard on the eyes with lots of barns and livestock housed year round and little but crops in the field grown to feed the penned up critters. Due to modern economics this is the way most of agriculture has gone, the get bigger or get out syndrome. It meant that farmers could stay on the land, but only a few, and like an endangered species their numbers have dwindled from what they once were. This has changed our Natural Capital, fields are empty of critters and uninteresting for passers by and the only time livestock are noticeable is when their odor assaults your nostrils on barn cleanout days. I am not saying what has happened is wrong; it is what has developed due to shifting economics.
More barns will be built and more empty fields will appear with monoculture (single purpose crops with little rotation) and this will chip away at the two thirds of our cities Natural Capital. The checkerboard of fields with varied livestock and crops that tourists and we see and enjoy as eye candy will be a memory. It has happened else where in our country and is happening here and because it moves slowly we fail to notice it happening until it is too late. This is economics at work but that does not make it inevitable, it can be changed. What’s more it can be changed by economics, a different model. Farmers have to make a living and will change only if things make economic sense.
This is where you the consumer comes in. By buying local, that means from a local farmer not a local grocery store, you will pay no more for the product than at the store for an often-fresher superior product. It will probably be more nutrient dense as it has not travelled far and so will be better value for money. You will be able to take the family out for a ride in the country, get some fresh air and meet a local food producer on his farm or road side stand. Buying food could be a pleasure not a chore, at the same time you would be helping preserve our Natural Capital which in turn would help the tourist sector businesses. When a farmer sells retail (direct to you the customer) instead of commodity (wholesale) he can farm with less land and smaller livestock numbers to make a living. It is easier for him to be organic or farm old style with livestock out in the fields where they should be.
During the summer when our sheep and poultry are out in the fields we notice how many cars and motorcycles slow up or even stop to take photos of frolicking lambs and the mountain scenery we are surrounded by. By you buying local food, which allows farmers to farm sustainably, we improve our Natural Capital, which in turn brings tourists and helps enhance and diversify our economy. I have only touched on one part of Natural Capital, there is also forestry and crown land along with the rivers and lake and then there is downtown and Smart growth, but I think I will leave that to the politicians!
Rob Fensom farms in the city at Harmonious Homestead and ewe and can be reached at rancherdaddy@hotmail.com

Friday, October 14, 2011

My trip to find new rams

A Shepherds Trip to the National Sheep Show and Sale

It all started last year when my friend Nev Eccles asked me if I would like to go to the National sheep show and sale at Drake Saskatchewan. It sounded like a great idea at the time. My wife offered to take care of the ranch while I was gone along with help from two of our children who would be home from University at that time. “It will be a good break for you, see old friends and flat land again, we know how much you miss it”. So it was settled, “count me in Nev” I said “it should be fun”.
When we got closer to the date I realized how much our operation had grown and was worried about taking time away. But I was quickly reminded I said I would go, so go I must. I began to think my going to Saskatchewan was more of a holiday for my wife than for me!
We set of at the appointed time and date, after loading up some of my wool for Carstairs woolen mill. We were driving right by so it would save me a large freight bill. We headed for Outlook Sask, I felt if we spent the night there and set off for Drake after breakfast we would arrive in plenty of time to book in the sheep and set up. We arrived earlier than expected in Outlook, but were glad of the break. The sheep, two rams and two ewe lambs seemed in better shape than us after the main leg of the trip.
Next morning after a hearty breakfast we set off to Drake via Nokomis. On the map the road is marked as red so one would assume it is a major road. But we are in the “Post Local Elevator age”, now large semi trucks and B trains haul farmers grain huge distances to a large terminals destroying the thin black top side roads on their way. Nev was beginning to wonder where I was taking him while he was fighting with potholes and gravel over large sections of a “black top” road!
I had hoped to learn a thing or two about showing sheep on this trip from Nev. Seems he was hoping for the same from me. Turns out we had both shown cattle and fat stock in England but both come up short on sheep. So we led the rams to the wash station and decided to watch the bloke next to us, and copy him! It worked out well as both rams came out several shades whiter than when they started and after a blow dry looked quite respectable. We felt that showing them “in the wool” was best for the sheep and us. We can both shear sheep, but the most I have ever left on is with a snow comb in February, so artistic clipping was defiantly out of the question.
This gave Nev more time to talk to prospective buyers and for me to look for some new rams. I needed a new Dorset flock sire, and a terminal sire, breed at that time undecided. The Classic is a great opportunity to compare breed sizes and styles all under one roof, which is really what the show and sale is all about for a commercial guy like me.
That night there was a wine and cheese event with great sheep’s cheese from The Cheesiry of Kitscoty Alberta, and there was me thinking it was only good for lambs! At this point I must say that the venue was great and the folks of Drake looked after us. Hats of to the ladies who made the Saskatoon pies, I now live in BC, the land of fruit but I really miss Saskatoons as they do not grow here. Yes I will admit to having two slices a day and three on Saturday.
The show had over 270 entries and with two rings and two judges it was a fast paced enjoyable event. No time to get bored and always some thing to watch. Nev did well with his North Country Cheviots and placed second with one of the rams. Although not trimmed and pretty, they were ready for the field, (having recently just left it) and did well on the sale day, generating a lot of interest in his stock. I spoke to Nev three weeks after the sale and he had sold all his rams since then, so showing and advertising pays. He seemed some what in shock with nothing left to sell, but was happy with his bank account. I will hazard a guess that what happened to Nev will happen to a lot of breeders of quality sheep this year. With higher lamb prices and the need to expand to keep markets the price of the sheep at the show was higher than in previous years and the bidding on good stock was fast and keen. There were the obvious high prices between breeders trading bloodlines, as some animals were priced well above the profitability threshold. The rams going to commercial flocks for either flock sires or terminal use sold well with many reaching or exceeding five times the market lamb price, which is the traditional guide line for pricing.
Its funny how you meet people, while collecting my bidding card the lady at the booth said “hi Rob, pleased to meet you”. It was Cathy Gallivan, the Editor and owner of Sheep Canada and although I have written for her we had never met, such is modern technology. It was good to meet Cathy and catch up with old friends from Manitoba to here all the latest from my old home. I would like to thank Clint Wiens for all his hard work and for our new Dorset flock sire, and Robin Herlinveaux for our new Texal terminal sire who will compliment our Dorset ewes.
So next time the classic is near you, or just a few provinces away, treat yourself and go to it. You will have a great time, meet great people and if you bid well bring home some great sheep!
Rob Fensom can be reached at rancherdaddy@hotmail.com

Summer Issue of Sheep Canada

Market Wishes verses Farm and Ranch Practicalities

It’s nice to see lamb prices are on the way up and appear to be holding, there is more optimism out there and a level of confidence among producers not seen for some time. I do remember a time back in the mid 90s when we saw similar prices and that was when a dollar bought considerably more than it does now. So in reality we are still not at a good price yet, however one interprets ‘good’. Rising inputs and overheads have seen to a narrowing of margins even when the price is up. It is about this time in the cycle of any farm commodity, whether livestock or grain, that with the tease of higher prices the buyers and packers promise good times ahead and encourage producers to ramp up production. The farmers and ranchers oblige as the only way to make more money is sell more livestock or grain. So within 18 months to 2 years the market peaks and starts it’s downward price spiral due to over production, cheap imports etc. Charlie Gracie wrote a great little book about this and its effect on the cattle industry, track it down and read it. Much of what is there can be said about any commodity including the lamb industry. Although we are much smaller the same applies, though due to sheep lambing at a year of age the cycle can be shorter.
About 20 years ago, give or take, government and industry groups were pushing multi-birth breeds, Romanov, Finn and the four new Canadian made breeds of that time. This along with accelerated lambing in the form of 3 lambing’s in two years or even the Star system of 5 lambing’s in 2 plus years. This all looked good on paper but unless we treat the sheep like pigs (putting them in barns year round, common in Quebec and parts of Ontario) and pretend Canada doesn’t have winter along with high stored feed costs compared to returns, it just won’t work with all the extra costs and man hours required. If we had $3.00/lb live lamb prices it might! I can just see the buyer’s faces now. The fact is there was a time when I could buy a full breakfast for $3.00 and lambs were a$1.50/lb live. Now the lambs are the same price but breakfast is $8.00. The word is already out there to produce more lambs to fill an expanding market but as we can see producing more on a very narrow or none existent margin is a mugs game. Many of you have found profit in private farm gate sales but it’s very tough to get the volumes up to a living wage. I sell for $7 to $8 per pound to my customers. That’s cheap compared to the $10 to $14/lb they pay in a supermarket, also they meet me, see my farm and are happy with our pasture-raised product. I only need a quarter of the sized flock to generate the same income. For small producers this is acceptable, but for the industry as a whole it would be a deathblow.
A viable industry needs numbers to support the infrastructure, packing plants trucking and distribution. Most of these are still in place so they at least have workable margins unlike some of their suppliers who have sold off flocks or downsized. The down sizing of the national flock puts pressure on the packing side of things and I have been hearing the worries of BC processors who are having great difficulty finding lambs. It seems the players put too much emphasis on supply and demand assuming if there is a demand we will jump to the pump like we always have to supply it. The average producer is 50 plus years old and has seen this part of the cycle several times and is finally getting smarter. With 95% or more of producers earning income from off farm sources they have allowed lower prices to exist by continuing to produce lamb at unsustainable prices. In turn the buyers and packers have grown accustomed to these low prices and have got soft in their business practices and pricing beyond their door. Retailers in turn hold their prices knowing full well if they do the packer can stay in business by lowering the price to the producer. As mentioned early in this article even with present higher prices it is still not high enough due to higher input costs and the reduced buying power of the dollar over time. This mess has been 30 years in the making and with many producers exiting the game due to old age and very few youngsters taking over the industry as we know it may well be gone in the next few years, except for lucrative farm gate sales.
There is still time to turn this around however. The producer’s share of the retail price used to be around 45% to 55% 25 years ago in the red meat sector. With a $3/lb carcass weight it is now 25%. I will suggest to be sustainable it has to be around a 50% return. I always find it ironic that folks will pay $12 or more per pound for fair trade coffee to ease their conscience, but will mercilessly grind their own countrymen into bankruptcy for a cheap grocery bill.
Some how buyers and packers must ensure more money back to the producer, because if they actually make a few real dollars (not money saved buy cutting costs, as there isn’t nothing left to cut) they will ramp up production. The folks between the farm gate and the customers plate (read middlemen) need to accept narrower margins as we the producers have been forced to do for the last 30 years. Yes, it’s hard but if you want to stay at the table that is what it’s going to take. Remember most of your producers are of an age they can shut shop and walk away and you could be left with empty killing floors and mortgages to pay. But if you pay a “fair trade price” most of us aged producers would love to oblige and producer more lamb at a profitable price for many more years. Hey, if we can get profit back in the equation maybe we will get some young farmers back in the game so your
Children can follow in your footsteps as buyers and packers too!
Rob Fensom farms in BC and is a grazing mentor and agricultural educator. He has been active in the Canadian sheep industry since 1987.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Sheep Canada Writings

Below are for of my articles I wrote for Sheep Canada a national shepherds magazine. Hope they are not too technical and that you may find them useful and enjoyable.

Ivomec Resistance and Worm Wars.

The title says it all. I had heard of resistance to Ivomec from several sources but it all seemed so distant and far away. It was occurring in areas of high sheep numbers and so I felt some what immune to it here in a of backwater BC. I have had sheep in Canada since 1989 and have only wormed once or twice a year, alternating between Ivomec and Valbazen. I had never had a major out break and will admit to some degree of complacency. Having spent time raising stock on the prairies I was used to dry land pasture, where often worms pose little or no problems. Worming once a year before putting the ewes on winter feed was often an economic rather than medical decision. Here in BC I have irrigated land, heavy morning dews and lush pasture, all great ground for harboring worm eggs and larva. With flocks being generally smaller here I ended up buying six flocks in to make a decent mob. When reading the last few lines you can see a ticking time bomb rearing its ugly head. Most of the flocks were fine but on reflection I realized one was wormed often and always with the same brand wormer. Sadly we only found this out during our battle with resistant worms and not the 18 months before when buying them.
During the summer of 2009 my combined flock was on lush irrigated pasture, which could best be described as rocket fuel. Every thing was going fine until July we started to notice mucky behinds which we first put down to too much clover and alphalpha as the grass was slowing up due to the heat. With the loss of condition we got out the wormer and did the flock. You guessed it we used Ivomec, but for the repeat dose we used Valbazen as that’s what we had on hand. Most got better, the few poor ones we put down to damaged stomach walls and we soldiered on. You will notice at this point no mention of the Vet. Mistake number one. A lot of the lambs went as feeders and we culled out the poor performing ewes and looked forward to the next season. At the onset we should have had the vet out and done some stool samples. This would have nipped it in the bud and saved the grief to follow in 2010.
Over winter we had culled and sold of the flock that we later suspected of bringing in our “super worms” as they were a breed that did not do well on our pasture. Sadly though they had left their little friends on the fields which were picked up by the remaining ewes and spread in the summer of this year. We rotationally graze but even with longer grazing intervals our moist lush grass seems to enable a better survival rate for the larva. We started seeing signs of worms in early July. I had a chat with our local vet. I mentioned I had read of Ivomec resistance and he said that he had too, but as he had heard of none in BC and to go ahead with Ivomec. This we did, as well as submitting fecal samples to the vet and then moved the flock onto some of our rented land where they had not been for a year. It was dry land and with no irrigation and harder grass I felt this would help. Mistake number two. When recovering from worms or in this case still carrying a heavy load of worms, lower octane feed only makes things worse as the lower plane of nutrition requires more feed intake. After ten days and two dead lambs we moved them to some irrigated ground, which also had not been grazed for a year. It was the toughest move I have ever witnessed as many of the lambs struggled with the short walk and several had to be carried. The Vet came out right away, took fecal samples and phoned me back with the results two hours later. The barber pole count had doubled and he admitted it looked as though we had a resistant strain. After conferring with his colleges and emailing veterinary practices that had dealt with resistance problems, he came back with a new medicine, Cydectin, a pour on for cattle that had been very successful in past cases. So a dose was calculated for drenching sheep and off to the field we went with our portable handling system. We were ready for a paddock shift so to get to fresh grass the flock had to first pass through the chute and have some grape coloured juice that smelt of gasoline. I was hoping I hadn’t just paid $150.00 per litre for farm gas! Within a couple of days the sheep seemed to be eating more and looking perky. We moved them every 24 hours to fresh grass to avoid re-contamination. The vet came after 5 days and tested samples again. He phoned back shortly afterwards with the sweetest news we could wish for. Clean poop. No critters of any kind to be found. On his advice we used Cydectin one more time 21 days after the first dose. From that point on the flock has not looked back. We are later finishing lambs this year and we did bring them home three weeks earlier to avoid grazing on contaminated pasture but it was worth the effort. I crutched (dagged) the dirty lambs to remove tags and dingers when we weaned them and am now marketing good looking lambs through the Auction yard and private sales. Next year we will be vigilant and check eyelids and body condition more closely. More to the point I will drop the “it can’t happen here” attitude, as it can and did. As for the Vet bills, the $100.00 a time lab work bills were hard to swallow but when you cost in the month longer to finish lambs and the dead lambs and one young ewe you realize going it alone was a false economy. Ivomec has been around for a while now and it was only a mater of time before the bugs caught on and learnt to beat it. Nature as they say bats last, and we now have roundup resistant weeds, bacteria that resists antibiotics, and worms that resist Ivomec. There is no doubt in my mind that the worms will one day resist Cydectin, but with good stockman ship and drug rotation we can hopefully prolong it’s use. Stockmen rarely talk about their wrecks, much less have them published in a national magazine, so I hope by sticking my neck out I will help some of you avoid the same mistake.

Matching Breed To Location

I have lived in Canada for thirty summers now, having spent roughly half my time on the Prairies and half in the Southern Interior of BC. Most of the time I have been ranching and one thing that is often glaringly obvious is the miss matching of livestock to location. Hailing from Britain as I do where every county or area has its specific breed of sheep, cow, pig, duck or chicken, I find it strange as folks here buy with the heart not the head. We tend to keep the breeds we like even if they are ill suited to the area we live. This seems to be a bigger problem with small farms rather than larger scale operations. Probably because it’s easier to ignore the financial lesson being doled out by owning tropical sheep on a bald prairie with 8 months winter when you only own 20 as opposed to 200 or 2000.
It’s always easier to spot our neighbours mistakes than our own so to begin with I will use Britain as an example. No shepherd there would dream of taking Dorset ewes up to the highlands of Scotland and swap them for some Scottish blackface ewes to take back to the rolling fertile pastures of Dorset County. The Black faced ewes would become overly fat, many not breeding and those that did would end up with more lambs than they knew what to do with, along with many foot problems and a few cases of bloat. The Dorset’s in Scotland would no doubt loose condition, some would not breed and many that normally have twins would only have singles. All of the above would make for stressed sheep, stressed shepherds and empty bank accounts.
Now to bring this closer to home and I will be the bad example. Remember you know nothing without experience and the man who didn’t make any mistakes probably didn’t do a lot either. The trick is to learn by others mistakes, it’s a lot cheaper! I used to ranch in southern Manitoba, we ran sheep, cattle and goats. The sheep were mostly Dorset/Suffolk crosses and suited for our area and management. Then one day I went and fell in love with Columbia’s, a huge wool breed with lambs that finish at 140lbs lovely fine wool and low lambing percentage which often goes hand in hand with easy care sheep. Not only did I pick a breed that was ill suited to our economic needs and our management style, but I hauled them in from Maple Creek, Saskatchewan which is a dry short grass area and we were in a moist park like setting with grass up to our under wear.
I thought our better grass would increase the lamb crop, needless to say our grass was like lettuce compared to Maple Creek’s granola like nutrient dense grass. No extra lambs appeared the next spring and over two years the wool clip value dropped as the wool became course, going from the fineness of silk to the thickness of bristles on a wire brush. It took four years of denial before I smartened up and got rid of the Columbia’s. As Tv’s 70s show Red would say, “what a dumbass”. Buying breeds with the heart instead of the head will do that to a fellow.
Now I’m not saying go sell off your sweet hearts and study up on climate, grass and livestock to get the winning combination. But if you want to improve your bottom line and after much tender loving care your gal’s are not coming up with the goods maybe its time to do a little investigating. Believe me, it’s quicker to destock and buy the right breed than try to upgrade a breed that is a poor fit.
These days we ranch in BC and rotationally graze irrigated pasture. This requires a high degree of management and needs a good return for all the labour of moving electric net fencing and irrigation pipes. In playing with breeds I bought in older ewes from small flocks that were being sold up. There was some disease risk but all worked out well. We have Dorsets, Romneys and Suffolks. Our pastures are lush green and are grazed 4-6 times a season, so we need a breed that can best utilise these conditions. The Dorsets and Romneys are coming up trumps as the conditions are similar to where their breeds originate from. The Suffolks are not doing so well unless their lambs are sired by the Dorset ram, the Dorset genetics make better use of the grass. Dorsets were originally a dairy sheep so they tend to milk better. Romneys are also a lush grass type animal with the added bonus of worm resistance as they originate from Romney Marsh a wet lowland in Kent England. The Suffolks who hail from a grain crop growing area of England and were used to clean up crop land in the fall and no doubt became accustomed to some grain will have to go, as they are poor milkers on grass and the lambs are not doing as well as the other two breeds. The Suffolks have been sold, not because they were bad sheep (they did 175%) but because they would not finish lambs on grass which is what we require.
For drier colder areas such as the Prairies, higher elevations in the Southern Interior of BC and the Peace region the wool type breeds such as Rambouillet, Columbia, Corriedale and Targhee do well especially when crossed with a Dorset or Suffolk terminal ram to gain some Hybrid vigour for the market lambs.
The Lower mainland, Vancouver Island, Ontario and the Maratimes should stick to the traditional English county breeds, Dorset, Suffolk, Leicester, Oxford, Hampshire, Romney, Southdown and some of the newer French varieties.
As for the new hair breeds I have to admit a some what sceptical bias as most are tropical sheep and do well in the warm and wet which is something we don’t do here. The money you save on shearing you will spend three fold on extra food to keep them warm in the winter with no woollen overcoat. The only exception I can see here is a Dorper ram to use as a terminal sire for market lambs on you’re already correctly chosen ewe breed. They are meat machines and with one per forty ewes you can afford to give him a bit extra feed in the winter as he will earn his keep.
So remember no rash moves, but take a closer look at where your breed originated from and do some looking at your pasture type and weather records. Just maybe its time to end that love affair and start shepherding with your head, your bank account will thank you for it.
Rob Fensom ranches in the Southern Interior of BC, is a grazing Mentor to those in need. He has been known to graze any type of critter for a buck.

Working with Nature, less stress, less bills.

I wrote in my previous article of matching breeds of sheep to geographic and climatic conditions that best suit them. The next move is to get in step with nature and let your sheep do what comes naturally. By this I mean you should first see when your local deer have their young. This is an excellent indicator as to when forage is available in your area for optimum milk production. Wildlife does what is the most efficient and effective when it comes to reproduction and feed. That is why often times we seem over run with them, especially on the highway and around the hay stack in winter!
I know you like the look of those Easter lamb prices and they sell for 50 cents to a dollar more per pound than those November lambs. But the question you have to ask yourself is what was the cost per pound to produce them? Remember those cold nights you stayed up lambing and all the hot lamps on to save those lambs from freezing. Also the extra feed and grain to “steam up” (pre lambing) the ewes and also after lambing to keep the milk flowing to feed those lambs. Next the expensive creep feed for the lambs to speed up their growth to hit that Easter market, because if they don’t make it the price drops after the Greek Easter and you still have all those high costs on the lambs that are left.
I have to confess to a fair bit of experience of the above as we used to lamb five flocks from Boxing Day till May, to hit the high spring prices and produce a cash flow. Our barn would also only accommodate 70 ewes at a time, so it helped make the best use of our barn. All of this was done in a Manitoba winter so you can imagine the man hours, feed and hydro that went into this labour of love. With some simple grade 4 math one can soon see that the deer and Mother Nature have it all figured out.
Easter lambs usually weigh from 50 to 70lbs; fall lambs are usually 100 to 130lbs, so they are roughly twice the weight. As Easter lambs are rarely twice the price per pound of fall lambs (except in the light weight classes), they often still sell for the same price or more per head than Easter lambs. That coupled with cheaper feed, grass in summer and only a maintenance ration for ewes in the winter, means there is no real advantage in those early lambs. When you then check flock health, vet bills and lambs marketed per ewes exposed to the ram, the ‘natural’ spring born lambs leap ahead in efficiency and effectiveness. The shepherd, due to the lower man hours per ewe can handle more sheep, thus improving income and making better use of the assets and lowering the fixed costs per ewe. He also seems to be less of a grouch, according to my wife.
I realise many who read this lamb in the winter due to off farm work in the summer season and this is understandable. I was in that situation when lambing the five flocks and know full well that the pay cheque is more powerful than the lamb cheque. Often it is thought easier to “dry lot” the flock and feed them as feed is cheap and the fields are best left unfenced for easier hay making. The simple fact is livestock can feed themselves while grazing cheaper than you can make, haul and fork that hay to them. This is not including all the manure that you have to haul and spread which they would have done for you while grazing, putting it back where it came from.
With the new style portable electric mesh fence the problem of grazing and permanent fences ruining hay fields is taken care of. In my own operation I have three hay fields with perimeter fences that are permanent. I can make hay of the whole field or graze any part or all of it with the use of portable fences. Those of you who are working off farm with a “sheep dependency” but have children who show an interest or a supportive wife can still graze. While I worked off farm my 12 year old son and 14 year old daughter managed to take down and set up this style of fence on their own with no supervision, moved sheep and goats with never a mishap. This not only helped us at the time but gave them self respect and a sense of responsibility that has served them well now they are in their twenties. One of the great advantages of small ruminants is the whole family can be involved with little danger from the livestock, unlike cattle, horses or bison.
Working with the natural cycle is not only the most economical but also more satisfying and a less stressful route to take. In the long run it means more time enjoying the work at hand and the surroundings you are in, and let’s face it, that’s why we do it. Which is far better than being a “materials mover” hauling hay in, and manure out while your animals watch you serve them on bended knee (or bended aching back), doing all the work while they have all the fun.
Rotational grazing, or the title I prefer MIG, Management Intensive Grazing is truly the only way to go. It sounds daunting almost scary, but actually is just general knowledge of plants and animals mixed with good old common sense and timing. All of which has been made easier by the electric fencing advances, modern plastics and the new style energisers available at just about any feed or farm supply store you walk into. So once you have your flock lambing to make the most of your seasonal grazing and in time with nature, the next step is to have pastures to allow them to work for you. An old Stockman I knew was asked what was the secret of his good calves and lambs, and top price he got at the market. His answer was to kick the grass he stood on and said “I just keep good grass under their noses.” So next visit I will explain pasture management, how to make it work, keep it simple and not be overwhelmed by all the jargon.

Lessons from a Shearer

We had our sheep sheared at the beginning of March, early by Provincial norms but I like my girls clean and slick for lambing. Our shearer Rod Allen came to do the job. He calls Keremeos home but originally he was a Kiwi so one assumes he should be a good shearer, and Rod does not disappoint. The job went smoothly, so much so, we had plenty of time to “chew the fat”. We can swap stories as I to use to shear nearly 20 years ago, although a different, century the stories have striking similarities.
Rod and his brothers were all taught to shear; his father knew none of the boys would go hungry in rural New Zealand or Australia with that skill mastered. Rod admits he had a 25 year break from it, so starting back several years ago was not all that easy. He says it’s like riding a bike, you don’t forget, but you have to get physically in shape, “bending like a rubber toy helps”! Even now during the off season he exercises knowing it he doesn’t, the start up will be even tougher. We are one of the first flocks he does and I wanted to know what made a good place to shear. As an ex shearer I try to make the job as easy as I can for Rod and myself. For the Shepherd shearing is often the most stressful time of the year, but the shearer does it every day so how does he cope?
Rod gave me a casual grin. “Do I look stressed mate?”
Of course it’s true, I have known a lot of shearers and all of them were laid back, easy going, quick to joke and laugh and most had not a care in the world. “OK, even temper is one thing but what do you need in the shed to make life easier?” I asked. He then gave me some of his needs and wishes as many are missing at some of the farms he goes to.
1) The number one thing all shearers need is no more then one or two steps to the holding pen, because he has to drag the sheep the same distance back to the shearing stand.
2) A level, solid shearing stand that is easy to sweep, two sheets of plywood work fine, placed next to the holding pen gate.
3) Plenty of natural light, artificial lights throw shadows and can make shearing a challenge, especially if the sheep are black.
4) Out of the wind and rain is nice! He seems to be real fussy about this; no doubt he has had a few bad experiences.
5) The sheep always have to be by the gate ready to go, he is not fond of leaving the shearing stand to chase the sheep up and then have them over excited to shear.
6) Good Tunes! Music at a moderate volume helps the day go and keeps tempers smooth.
7) Enough help to keep the holding pen full, the stand swept and the fleeces moved away so the shearer can do what he does best, shear sheep.
8) Sheep must be dry, if rain is threatened put them inside. Not only are they harder to shear and unpleasant for the shearer, wet wool will mould and rot in the wool sack, causing an even lower price for the wool.
9) Last but not least, in fact this is the most important. The sheep should be off feed for 18 hours or more. It is easier for the sheep and shearer if they have empty bellies even more so if they are heavily pregnant. We shear a moth before lambing and that’s about as close as you should get, or you may have prolapses and even abortions due to stress.
Shearing is now becoming a family occupation. Rod, his wife and their son were off to Montana for a week at shearing school after visiting us. His wife and son are doing the beginners course and Rod says he will do the advanced course to keep his hand in. I teased him and said soon he will just count the sheep and collect the money leaving the shearing to the family. “No way mate, I like shearing too much, I plan to shear till I’m 80”. That reply was music to my ears. We are about the same age and I want to Shepherd until my 80s, but I don’t want to shear the woolly b----s!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

October Friday AM article

Tax Inspectors and Harvest time.
Tax inspectors and farmers in the same sentence are a bit like talking about cricket and knitting, there does not seem to be a connection. Lets face it, farmers rarely make enough to pay taxes let alone need inspecting. The only truly money making crop I can think of that would warrant a tax inspector has never been declared as income and likely never will be! HST on the other hand has kept these inspectors busy visiting farms as their new rules mean they owe the farmers money. Seems they cannot believe it and are checking up on us to see why we are claiming such big refunds. Pre HST, farmers could only claim an exception of the Provincial sales tax on certain listed items, but with HST they had a full refund on all items spent in connection with their farming business. This meant an extra 20 million dollars per year to the provinces farmers. As every one knows if you give a farmer some money he or she will spend it in the local economy to keep right on farming. So really it was a tax refund to business from government via farmers. Several area farmers including ourselves took advantage of this and built new barns and buildings on their farms. Costs related to construction and building materials were taxable under the old system but refundable with HST. I am sure none of us did the building because of the refund but it was a nice bonus. We, as good citizens are spending it back into the local economy to finish landscaping around the hall, beats trudging through the mud. Now that extra 20 million dollars that farmers were going to have every year because of the HST will no longer be available, thanks to Billy wooden toes and his supporters. It would have helped out local communities, as it would have gone to local contractors and building supply stores. Was all that fuss really worth it to save a few bucks on a meal in the local dinner just to sit on the couch for 3 weeks with no wages because Farmer Fred is no longer going to build a new hay shed? Silly me, and I though Billy Vanderzam was all for business, big or small, I guess he was just missing the spot light in his retirement.

While writing this it is pouring with rain outside and while the land needs it, the caretakers of the land do not. We have a harvest to gather and wet muddy conditions do not help. The warm sunny fall though has been great until this recent downpour. Hay, vegetables, fruit and livestock have been gathered for marketing or storage. With such a cold poor start this spring things turned around and most crops seemed to be ok. Some of the sun loving crops were a bit late like sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers etc, but it was the best year I can remember for potatoes, carrots and beets. The lesson for those who talk about local food security after this years strange weather sounds eerily similar to something our grandparents would say. Don’t be picky, as the good Lord always provides, just not always what you like to eat!
Our livestock did well this year, as the cooler weather meant less stressed pasture and better weight gains on the lambs. The first batch of chickens struggled with the cool temperatures though giving lighter birds. With the more seasonal temperatures during the rest of the year the second batch did much better and will make excellent wintertime roasters.
The laying hens and young point of lay hens breathed a sigh of relief as they miss the pot this year, but only if they lay well this winter. Some are heritage birds and will be sold as starter flocks to other chicken fanciers.
The other day I saw my first salmon of the season making it’s way upstream reminding me it’s the start of a new year for the Salmon. November 5th is also the start of the New Year for our sheep, as the rams go a ‘courting and start off the whole cycle again. It is also the end of the previous year and we at Harmonious Homestead wish to celebrate a harvest “gathered in” with a traditional Harvest Supper at the Mount Ida Hall on the Homestead on the 5th November. Bring a friend or friends to a scrumptious country style meal in a 100 plus year old building that has seen many Harvest Suppers in this valley over the years. Watch this paper for ticket details or email me below.
Rob Fensom farms in the city at Harmonious Homestead and ewe and can be reached at harmonioushomestead@live.ca

Sunday, September 11, 2011

September AM column

Four Legged Beauty Contests are Business in Disguise

My adventure to Drake Saskatchewan for the National Sheep Show and Sale back in July has certainly given me (or at least my wife, who’s idea it was) a case of the show bug. Writing this I have just got back from a hectic week showing sheep at the IPE and am now busy getting ready to show at the Salmon Arm Fall Fair. I have not shown for over 30 years and its interesting to see how time and distance changes things.
Dress code is much more relaxed, black pants and white shirt is all that’s required here. In the 70s in England dress pants and shirt, with tie along with a pressed bright white laboratory coat and of course a county cap on your head. I also don’t remember too many women in the ring. It was male dominated, with women stepping in if men were sick but mostly they were relegated to showing goats as back then they were not considered farm animals by the male fraternity.
My, how things have changed. Now women dominate the show ring in sheep and goats and do a fair amount of work with the cattle. There is a much greater sense of camaraderie and less of competitive aggression. In fact for most it seems it’s a chance to get off the farm see some fellow farming friends and have some fun. If you pick up a few ribbons along the way all the better. Some things never change however; every one does their best to show the quality of their stock and to put their herd or flock in the best light for prospective buyers. Make no mistake these shows have always been about selling livestock. The fact the public at large have a fun day at the fair and get to see all the farm animals is a bonus. The farmers and stockmen are there to show their animals to other farmers and to see what else they can purchase to improve their own herd or flock. Although there is no auction at the end, deals are made, and visits to farms arranged to facilitate purchases. It is really a big promotion event much like a boat or home show, except its for barnyard critters.
One of the biggest changes over the years is the recognition of everyone else. By that I mean none farming folk who are not there to purchase animals. After all you are the consumers of our products and as you vastly outnumber us compared to days gone by we realize the need to bridge the rural/urban gap has never been greater. Many booths are set up by producer groups to inform and educate the public with neat interactive quizzes or even hands on opportunities like milking a cow or goat. The livestock exhibitors also do their part and spend time with their charges fielding questions from passers by helping to enhance the visitors experience and to bridge the gap from Gate to Plate. I really encourage you to get out to Salmon Arm Fall Fair and chat with the farmers and agribusinesses there to get a better understanding of what goes on between the Bush and the City limits.
As for the IPE we took our registered Coloured Romney’s and had a lot of fun meeting new faces and old friends. Our ram William, (of ‘back to back’ fame from last Februarys event in Piccadilly Mall) much to our surprise enjoyed himself allowing everyone to pet him and posed constantly for photo ops. No one believed that I had a fight to catch him four days before the show, as he had no intention of going! He wallowed in the attention, at times it was embarrassing but he was a hit and I suspect he will appear on a few computer desktops. Blackberry our ewe entry and Yale and Yates her two ram lambs also garnered attention but they kept their cool and were less apt to show off. There is no class for William at Salmon Arm so Blackberry and her boys will be able to shine without the ‘old man’ to steal the show. Try to make it to the fair and drop by to say hi to our sheep for a chat of things sheepish.
Rob farms in the city at Harmonious Homestead and ewe. Reach him at rancherdaddy@hotmail.com

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

August Friday AM article, My trip to Drake Saskatchewan

Sheep sale and food deserts
I took a break from the homestead during the last week in July thanks to my wife, son and daughter who manned the place while I was gone. We needed new ram power (four legged not four wheeled) so I went to the National sheep show and sale at Drake Saskatchewan. My old friend Nev was going as he was showing some of his sheep there, so I rode with him and helped him at the show and sale. We arrived on Friday, washed the sheep and blow-dried them so they looked their best. We are “old school” and showed them “in the wool” as opposed to clipping them to make them look more chunky. “In the wool” shows the true picture of the animal and is less of a disappointment when it gets back to the new owners ranch than a clipped and preened beauty queen. As Nev placed second in the ram class and then reserve champion it proved our point. It also allowed us more time to visit and catch up with old friends.
Friday night was a wine and cheese evening, a chance to say hello to the other competitors and catch up on all the national shepherds gossip. The cheese was some of the best I have ever eaten. It was made with raw sheep’s milk and left to age it made a nice hard cheese that had some bite. We held off on the wine though as we needed to be at our best the next day.
The show had over a dozen different breeds and 270 entries. With two judges and two rings it took about six hours and was a great way to spend a day, if you like sheep that is! All animals at the show have to be sold the following day at the sale so I spent much of my spare time talking to breeders and eying up potential new mates for our flock.
I settled on a possible six rams and listed them in order; if prices went to high for me I had second and third choices, but hoped I would not need them.
Saturday night we all sat down to a lamb banquet. I guessed there were close to 280 people there and our numbers were slowly growing as many folks come for the evening get together and sale the following day. Commercial shepherds such as myself often go to these sales and buy purebred rams to improve our flocks. Several Hutterite Colonies were in attendance much to the pleasure of the breeder’s, as they tend to buy larger numbers of rams because many have flocks numbering in the thousands.
Sale day brought higher prices than have been seen for several years. This is a reflection of the higher lamb prices and a smaller national flock, due mainly to older shepherds retiring and several years of narrow margins. I needed two types of rams, one to produce more ewes for the flock and one to put more meat on our market lambs. I bought the flock sire of my choice, a Dorset yearling, oddly enough from a young shepherd who went to Ag College with my daughter. Judging by his sheep he paid attention to his lessons. The meat ram or ‘Terminal Sire’ as he is called was my second choice and he is a Texal coming from Vancouver Island, so he went along way to get to Salmon Arm via Saskatchewan.
Next year the event will be in Nova Scotia but I think I will give that a miss, as that would take too much time out of my summer schedule. The year after may well be in Chilliwack so I will mark that one on the calendar. We had a great few days away from work and got to see other farms and farmers. The rams are now safely back and for some reason the weeds grew bigger than the rest of the plants in my garden, though I understand from other holiday takers this is not at all unusual.
One thing I noticed on our journey was how blessed we are here with so much local food of all kinds. In the Prairies you are surrounded by crops and yet are in a virtual ‘Food Desert’. One comment I read recently in the Western Producer from a Saskatchewan Agricultural ministry chap was, “we don’t grow food here, we grow ingredients”. He was right, there were very little fresh fruit and vegetables and not much healthy food on offer. Yes there were exceptions but compared to here in BC it was quit a challenge. I had read of food deserts and that most were found in urban and less wealthy areas. Yet there amongst all the crops and livestock, because of a low population it was not profitable to ship fresh quality food in, hence the food desert. With the combination of harsh climate and sparse population few are willing to take on the risk of local food production. Although I miss the big prairie sky, the sunrise’s and sunsets, the wind in my face which ever way I turn and the sheer vast emptiness of it all I was glad to be home. Especially now the summer seems to be here and the fruit is arriving. So count your blessings and remember to support your local Farmers Markets and producers. If you need to talk sheep, food or farming in general, or some local food for supper I will be at the Saturday Farmers Market at Hannah’s or at the Homestead pulling weeds!

Friday, June 10, 2011

June Friday AM article

Salmon Safe, Costs are not.
Spring is finally here and all our animals are out on pasture. It has been a very slow start but with the recent sunshine I feel the year is on its way. While writing this though there is still much to do in the garden, as we have not planted any thing out yet due to cold wet nights. That will change with this week’s sunshine and I hope to have the job finished by weeks end.
We officially became Certified Organic this May, the Homestead not me, I am still a nasty toxic mess. Our land and vegetables are now organic though not our livestock. I have kept them out of the system as we feed them grains from the Barley Station brewpub. After each batch of beer is made we pick up the mash that is discarded and recycle it through our critters. Although it does not meet the organic standards we felt the ‘greenness’ of it was more important. Our livestock are treated as organic in all other aspects and so we felt this was the right thing to do.
In April we received a letter from the Pacific Salmon Foundation to say we now are ‘Salmon Safe’. This is a new certification, which ensures best management practices are met in relation to farm management and waterways, in our case the Salmon River. It is a new program and has been adopted from Oregon where it has been running successfully for some years. We entered the program last fall and were processed by Jude a lady from Oregon who manages the program there. It took about 3 hours, many questions and a farm tour to verify my answers. As luck would have it we stopped at the bridge and looked at the river and there were the salmon busy spawning, I’m sure that helped with our application!
With Organic Certification, Salmon Safe and a Farm Environmental Plan in place we feel we are doing our best to ensure a tasty, healthy, safe local source of food for our customers. At the same time we are being easy on our land and waterways so as to make it a sustainable system for all concerned.
With all these things there is a cost and ultimately they are pasted on to the consumer. Interestingly it is consumer demand that has ensured we follow these protocols and this is why there is a so-called ‘price premium’ for specialty and niche products. There is though a sad disconnect where the “rubber meets the road” so to speak, with the pricing of products and customer acceptance. Many folk feel because they are buying direct from the farmer and cutting out all those middlemen the price in the Farmers market or at the farm gate should be lower than in the store. Sadly due to modern big scale agricultures size producing only one thing in large quantities, the product price is lower per unit than the same thing produced on a small local farm. Smaller scale mixed farming by its very nature is labour intensive but it is also more sustainable and easier on the environment. The hidden costs of large scale agriculture that are paid by you via the government such as environmental cleanups, legislation, inspecting, drug and chemical testing etc are often not needed or used by small scale organic farming. The saving on the price is in the down stream hidden costs not the upfront cost. The biggest benefit to you the customer is the fact the local food is FRESH. This means more flavour, more nutrients and the much sort after antioxidants. This produce often stores longer in your fridge, as it is not tired out from a 2000- 6000km journey! The money you spend stays in your community and is not spent else where on fuel, boardroom offices and shareholder dividends and the left over crumbs to the farmer who produced it. Money spent on local produce goes via that local farm family back into the community through local stores (many of them that you shop in), the arena, cinema, and towards the Library and Swimming Pool via property taxes. Buying from your local farmers at the Market or at their farms is an investment in your community and the Shuswap lifestyle.
With a cool start this spring produce may be slower coming to town than usual but knowing the skill of local growers it will only be a week or ten days slower than normal. I encourage you to visit an area farmers market this summer, treat your taste buds and body while investing in your community. If you have questions or want to chew the fat over food and farming issues I am at the Saturday Farmers Market from 9-12 noon at Hanna’s with what ever is fresh from our farm as well as Homestead baked goods.
Rob farms in the city at Harmonious Homestead and ewe. Check out what’s up on Facebook at Harmonious Homestead and ewe.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Friday AM may column

Hot Air, Cool Spring
Well it’s over, and after all that hot air spreading out over the country from Ottawa we are still not much warmer than in mid March. Big shake-ups all around, and according to an opinion column in one of our illustrious national Daily’s we now have a “friendly dictatorship”. I am not sure whom he is friendly to though, as $35 billion on new jet fighter bombers, updating weaponry for the army and a new defense program for our Arctic real estate hardly sounds neighborly. Now if only they would spend that money on defense from the Arctic, some large portable heaters to at least get our early May temperatures above single digits over night would be a start. Then we farmers could get seeding and transplanting done on time, and then we could at least feed the troops some homegrown food!
Talking of growing food this is one of the slowest springs I have witnessed in many years. Back in the day in Manitoba on our old ranch spring was sometimes earlier than this, one year in particular I started grazing on 25th April, mind you, that was in the dry years before they had to teach the cows how to swim. I realize we should all count our blessings with the long list of natural disasters around the world, and be glad of the fact our biggest hard ship will be waiting and extra week or ten days for fresh sweet corn.
Here at the Homestead I have stuck my neck out and planted anyway. I did a truly green act on Earth Day and covered our Market Garden with well composted manure to ensure sweet carrots and corn. I worked it in over the next few days and then got out the seed packets. So far I have potatoes, carrots, beets, fennel, cilantro, parsley and wheat in the soil. Yes you read right, wheat. An old prairie boy like me has to grow some grain, else I’d get miserable, though I hear some do when they do grow it anyway, but they just love the frustration. Weather, future’s prices, grain contracts, CN strikes and dockyard shut downs, broken machinery etc. I was always jealous, seems they had so much more to gripe about at the coffee shop than us cattle ranchers. I used to grow feed grain by the quarter section so three seed packets of wheat seemed a little silly. This wheat though is very special, it is Red Fife an heirloom variety that was commonly grown from 1890 onwards and was latter used as a parent for the newer variety Marquise. This hard red spring wheat is great for bread making and I am looking forward to getting out my old mill this fall and trying some home grown, home baked bread. I will also save some seed and increase my amount grown for 2012. We have done this with corn and had some excellent corn bread recently so maybe I will plough up more of my precious pasture to become a grain farmer!
Our livestock have had a good time this year, lots of lambs and goat kids though with the slow growing grass we do not see turning them onto pasture till 8th or 12th May. The grass needs to be 6-10 inches high before grazing so it can recover for future grazing. We also have chicks for pasture poultry and a couple of piglets to help eat the weeds and scraps from the garden. If that’s not enough my son and I have been franticly building Chicken Tractors (movable pens) as we have more chickens arriving any day. They are layers and will supply our customers with pasture grown, free-range eggs which are high in omega 3s. I was conducting a tour of our farmyard the other day and a young Mom asked me where my “help” was, I pointed to the cat. She was shocked that I did it all by my self. She offered me lots of praise but beat a hasty retreat when I offered her a fork and pointed to a large pile of manure that was ready for turning.
The old Mount Ida hall is coming along nicely, the painters are busy and our commercial kitchen will be arriving in a few days. Now the Hall is moved and settling in at its new spot folks are telling us stories about the building and some of their experiences in it. One of the original doors has one white panel in it because after a break-in our neighbor Doug had no red paint. He showed me the repair he had done, nothing was missing, and so he patched it up with a piece of white plywood. When we repaint it we will make sure the white panel and the story stays. Its now called Doug’s door! If you have any tales to tell about the Mount Ida hall we would love to hear them and then we could keep up the history as well as the building. We are planning on a big Grand opening day some time in June, watch this column and adverts for details. This Saturday 7th May is another first, at Hannahs there will be a Saturday Farmers Market from 9.00 till 12 noon. All the vendors are from Salmon Arm City limits and all are farmers, so the produce will be truly local with a very light carbon footprint, hope to see you there.
Rob farms at Harmonious Homestead and ewe in the city.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

April Friday AM article, election special!

Seeds of Promise, Visions of Veggies.

My seeds arrived in the mail the same day the election was called. The sad part is we have new seeds every year and we have almost matched that with elections, 4 in 7 years and that doesn’t include provincial or municipal. If we could only weed out the nasty critters in the political landscape the way we do in our gardens and cast out those deep-rooted nutrient-sucking parasites. Then compost them into something useful, our country would then bloom and produce like our gardens and become something we could once again be proud of. Remember how we feel after weeding the garden? Loathing to do it but once the task is finished our sore backs and weary bodies are blessed with the promise of future abundance. Some how elections just don’t have the same effect, headaches and high blood pressure from endless TV debates and reports. Promises we know will be broken however sincerely given as soon as the election is won. Worse yet the utter helplessness of it all knowing who ever gets elected, taxes will go up, services will go down, and very little will change except the talking heads and the colour of the banners.
Remember the old saying, “ you can keep some of the people happy all of the time, and all of the people happy some of the time, but not all of the people happy all of the time”. Oh Canada, many of us question the need and the reason of voting when little seems to change, but if you don’t do it you can’t gripe afterwards. So get out and vote so you can hold you head high and complain later!
On a lighter note and still on elections go to the CBC website and try the Vote Compass, it’s a series of questions that show where you are compared to the five main political parties. The result is on a four axial graph much like a large crosshairs and much to my surprise (tongue firmly in cheek) I discovered I was equal distance from all major parties, about as far from them all as could be physically possible on this type of graph. I took great pleasure in printing the result off, as I shall frame it as proof positive of my Politically incorrect curmudgeonly ways. As to whom I should vote for it would appear I should form a new party for myself and the many other millions of disenfranchised voters across the country. With yet another party to choose from I doubt this nation would ever see a majority government again!
Now to the more important news, seeds, dirt and critters! The land is starting to stir with the warmer temperatures and the city farmers are busy planting in their greenhouses, or greasing up the machinery to go to the field as soon as it is dry enough. Newborn calves can be seen in barnyards and fields, some already several weeks old. Our goats have finished kidding and Xerox our new Billy goat did a great job of producing many copies of himself, half boys and half girls. The sheep will start lambing soon, around the first week in April, apart from one who visited one of our black rams before the breeding season and who has already produced a fine set of twins. The orchardists have been busy pruning, some thing that is still on my to do list, and the bee keepers are watching their hives and wishing for sunnier warm weather so they can stop feeding the bees. It is still too early to be out cultivating or rotor tilling but it is always interesting to see who can get on their fields first. Most of us are now armed with seed and I saw many of you at Seedy Saturday. I wish you ever success over the next few weeks getting dirt under your fingers and planting promises to fill your dinner plates.
On 16th April noon till 5.00pm Harmonious Homestead and ewe will host their 3rd annual Knee Deep in Spring event so folks can see the new born lambs, goat kids, piglets, chicks and baby rabbits. It’s a good chance to chase away the winter blues and celebrate spring and a fresh start. Politicians are most welcome so long as they kiss a piglet for the photo op!
Rob Fensom farms in the city at Harmonious Homestead and ewe.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Our Trip to Panama, I now know why I hate winter!

Tropical Travels.

It’s the last week of February as I write this and the temperatures are quite seasonal, for Winnipeg! The shock to my system is even worse as we have recently returned from Panama where summer reigns eternal. My wife and I had a holiday 3 years after our last one. This does not sound bad, but when you realize that was our first one in 28 years and to follow it so soon with another one is a major accomplishment for my wife. I had to be dragged kicking and screaming from the ranch so close to my last departure 3 years before, hats off to her.
The above is somewhat tongue in cheek, though there was a time when I was that stubborn. These days the promise of a 30 degree Celsius jump in temperature and 20lbs less clothing on to keep warm is all I need to activate the traveling bug.
Panama is amazing and not at all like I imagined. With a canal between two large oceans I expected a flat swamp laden land, with endless jungle and every one living on a costal strip. Guess what, they have mountains and plenty of them, which is a good thing as they grow the best coffee I have ever tasted. Lots of ranch land, thousands of cattle, year round grazing and no hay to make or feed. I had to pinch myself to make sure I was not already in heaven!
In a country of 3 million people and a year round growing season agriculture plays a big role, with beef, pork, and chicken in the meat department, sugar cane, pineapples, bananas, coffee, papaya, mangoes and many vegetables in the field crops. The cattle seemed to be in the hilly regions where bush and terrain made cropping difficult. Most were cow calf operations, their calves are moved to lower greener pastures for finishing. We noticed fattening cattle on lush rotationally grazed pastures in the cropland areas and with no grain being grown I assumed all beef is grass fed. I only saw a few sheep and the only place I saw goats were on the large Indigenous reserves. Many of the ranches in the hills and bushier regions could have used goats to keep the scrub under control and that would improve the pastures for the cattle. (Maybe they need a Pasture consultant, a white-collar job and no winter, score!)
After all this about the production, lets talk consumption. Most higher end restaurants cook dishes from all over the world, and we wanted to eat Panamanian in Panama not Thai, Japanese or American. So we hunted out the Cantinas, which were busy serving locals and were treated to authentic, tasty and cheap meals. The best we found was on the main street in Bouquete a coffee growing town in the mountains. ‘Serasone’ had a large smorgasbord with at least 8 different meats, many different rice’s and vegetables, plantain being my personal favorite. Also several different deserts and cakes. All this, for only $5 per person. One of our fellow travelers received seniors rate and it was $1.50!
Panamanian food is flavourfull but not hot or spicy, in fact the only time I smelt garlic was at the airport on the breath of newly arriving Gringos.
When we were near or on the coast fish was plentiful and was a treat for us after lamb, pork and chicken from our farm. I had to try a steak and found steaks are cut thin and cooked fast to seal in the flavour, actually most meat is grilled or fried with sauces added afterwards. In those temperatures who needs to sweat over a hot stove, and eat roasts and stews. The grass fed steaks were great along with the fish, squid, octopus, crab and lobster.
We spent time on beaches and palm treed desert islands; snorkeled corral reefs and shipwrecks the usual tourist stuff so I won’t bore you. The neat thing to see, and one of our reasons for going was the Panama Canal. We had both learnt about in our geography lessons at high school, so a trip to the Miraflores Locks was one of the highlights of our trip. Luck was with us as the cruise ship “Queen Elizabeth” of the Cunard line from London England was passing through as we were there. The ships are towed through the locks by electrically powered trains, which act as brakes as well as providing forward motion. There was only two feet either side of the ship to spare, so accuracy is paramount. It takes about 8 hours to go from one ocean to the other and at any one time there are 40 to 50 boats waiting at either end to use the system. It runs 24 seven, every day of the year. The cruise ship paid $300,000 for the privilege, and the large container ships stacked high with truck sized boxes pays a cool $1 million for an 8 hour, 54 mile trip. What’s more, they won’t let you enter the system until your cheque has cleared. Who needs to deal in drugs when you have a canal!
Folks have asked me if I felt safe there and was security a concern. Well the police are all heavily armed, many with shotguns and machine guns, they are friendly and helpful and there seems no shortage of them. There was no sign of speed cop’s, the potholes do their job for free. The rest of the locals are very friendly and not armed, so to be honest I have felt more nervous on Canadian city streets at times than ever I did in Panama City or else where in Panama.
So I would give Panama a big “thumbs up”, go and check it out. I know two of you have as while walking around a coffee plantation in Bouquete I met a couple from Sorrento. What’s more we bumped into them in Old Panama City a week later, 400kms from the coffee farm. Small world or what!
Rob Fensom calls Harmonious Homestead and ewe home and farms in the city.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

My January Column in the Friday AM.

Endings and Beginnings.

Writing this so close to the calendar year change I will do my best to avoid boring recaps of the past year and offering my predictions for 2011 as seems so common among many writers in both print and electronic media. Here on the farm things not only change with the seasons but also with the economy. Every one has to eat, so every one is a potential customer for a farmer selling to a consumer. This is a new concept for me and constitutes one of the biggest changes I have encountered since coming to the metropolis of Salmon Arm.
“Salmon Arm, a metropolis” you say. Well, to a rancher from the Manitoba Prairie who drove 30 miles to pick up the mail this area sure has a lot of people, and the mailbox is right by my pasture just a short walk from the barn. The down side is I can’t go to the coffee shop to catch up on gossip and cattle prices while picking up the latest issue of the “Western Producer” and the inevitable bills. Every one there and in most of the Canadian Prairies were commodity farmers and ranchers. We had one pay cheque a year when we shipped a couple of semi loads of calves and never met or spoke to the folks who ate our product. Life was simple, but with out the feedback or interaction with our customers, I now realize it was dull and somewhat boring; with out knowing it, I needed a challenge.
We arrived here nearly six years ago and change it seems was the name of the game. We started out commodity farming, cow/calf, grazing stockers (yearlings) and lately sheep. With our fertile irrigated valley bottomland producing 4 times per acre more than our land on the old ranch I felt the smaller land base would work. Then economics reared its ugly head in the form of higher costs and lower livestock prices. It was time to jump into the “white water” of value added and farm diversification, get wet, cold and scared. A 180 degree turn from grass chewing rancher to rural businessman, who says you can’t teach old dogs new tricks.
Learning curves are always tough, sometimes brutal and always full of surprises, some good, some not so. Rather than jump in head first, we stepped into the water gently just up to our knees to check it out. Last year saw us grow a small market garden of mixed vegetables to sell at the farm gate and in the Farmers Market. We produced and sold pasture-raised meats, chicken, pork, lamb and rabbit. Well boy oh boy, did we have fun, sure it was hard work and long hours, with its share of problems, but the interaction with our customers was worth it. I am not sure who learnt more, them or us. I could have ended up one of those crusty old ranchers who preferred cattle to people, and sits in the coffee shop complaining about the weather, the government and cattle prices. Instead I now get to sell my produce to local consumers and share and talk with them and their children about how the food is grown, why its good for them and answer there varied questions about our operation. Farming and ranching is fun again, and now I can share my passion not only with my critters but also my customers.
Here at the threshold of 2011 I will make no predictions for me, or you, but I can safely say our farming operation will grow, as local raised and grown food seems very much on the minds of folks in the Shuswap. We will have a new outlet on our farm with the moving of Mount Ida hall to our farmyard. This will give us a farm store and meeting place, (maybe I can sit in the corner drink coffee and complain about the government and cattle prices as a tourist attraction, or may be not says the wife!) We will also start several new product lines, pasture raised beef and eggs and also grow more early sweet corn and potatoes. I sold so many potatoes we have none for our selves and are reduced to buying them in the store, I have been given strict instructions not to let this happen again by you know who!
The weather has been kind so far and the wood pile is not going down very fast which is a treat as I don’t spend as long being shaken to pieces by my trusty husky chain saw. On the farm it also means with the warmer weather less hay is consumed which is always a bonus. Things have calmed down and we can now plan for next year. My wife, the organizer of our team has had me install two large planning calendars, one for the year and one for the month on our office wall. All notations are colour coded for ease of recognition along with appointment times and destinations. All I have to do is decipher it and be at the right place at the right time, and I thought last years learning curve was tough!