Simcoe sheep farmer wins United Nations sustainable agriculture award

·4 min read

Carrie Woolley wasn’t reinventing the wheel. What the Simcoe farmer proposed — to have sheep graze in fruit orchards, using the same land to produce several food sources — was how farming had been done for centuries.

“If you looked at farms in Ontario 50, 60, 70 years ago, this was common practice,” she said.

“My grandmother in Tillsonburg, she talks about how she’d run pigs through her apple orchard after they’d harvested. It’s not really a new concept.”

But times changed as farms grew and operations became more specialized. So when Woolley and her husband, Brett Schuyler, first considered integrating livestock on their fruit and cash crop farm eight years ago, they wondered if it could work.

“I thought, does this make sense?” Woolley said.

Fast forward to last week, when the United Nations Food Systems Summit chose Woolley as one of 50 winners of its Good Food for All Competition, which recognizes small businesses charting a future for sustainable agriculture.

The competition received more than 2,000 entries from around the world, and Woolley’s Lamb was one of just two winners in North America.

“We were honoured and very excited,” Woolley said.

“We’re just trying to do things well here, and it’s exciting when you can work hand in hand with nature.”

Many crops, same land

Woolley’s 2,000-strong flock lives outside year-round, moving from pasture to pasture with help from an experienced group of guard dogs.

The sheep munch on cover crops like alfalfa in between cherry and apple trees on Schuyler Farms. When the orchards need a break, lambs and ewes head to woodlots that were selectively logged to remove invasive tree species, creating room for grasses and wildflowers to grow.

“You’re multi-purposing that land,” Woolley said of the practice known as silvoculture.

“It’s producing trees for some type of crop — whether it be timber or fruit — and also getting the forages growing so you can raise livestock all on the same piece of land.”

Silvoculture keeps costs low, since Woolley does not have to deliver feed to sheep living in a heated barn or truck the manure they produce back to the fields.

No straw needs to be harvested for bedding, and the sheep themselves keep vegetation low, eliminating the need for mowing.

“So you’re producing meat and fibre and using very little fuel,” Woolley said.

With water lines attached to solar-powered pumps and very little electricity powering the fences that keep sheep in and predators out, the operation has a much smaller carbon footprint than traditional livestock housing.

As for the sheep, they spend their days in the fresh air, sampling a diverse menu of shrubs and flowers.

“It’s a very nice way to raise animals. It’s like a buffet of plants out here,” Woolley said, noting that most of her sheep are Coopworth, a “low maintenance” New Zealand breed that thrives in pastures.

“We can bring in sheep and try to reduce the invasive plants and promote native species instead,” she said. “In return, they’re fertilizing the soil.”

The sheep are sheared in the pasture each May, and once freshly shorn are directed under shady trees to avoid sunburn. Rain showers keep their fleece as white as snow, Woolley said.

“The wool is very clean, which is very desirable when you’re sending it off to a mill to get processed,” she said. “Sheep that live in barns, their wool is full of straw, and sometimes it’s useless.”

Aside from the wool as a revenue source, local restaurants purchase meat from the farm, and Woolley’s Lamb is available at several local farmers markets.

‘Honoured and humbled’

Woolley said she was “so honoured and humbled” to be recognized by the United Nations, but admitted the international attention left her feeling, well, sheepish.

“When you go through the list of who won and what their businesses are about, I was like, man, we’re out of our league,” she said, mentioning a Nigerian company that uses solar technology to prevent food spoilage in remote villages.

“That’s amazing,” she said. “Those people are tackling poverty and hunger. I’m grazing sheep.”

But the award is also an endorsement of a traditional, eco-friendly farming philosophy that is catching on again.

“There’s definitely interest,” said Woolley, who shares her silvopasture expertise at growers’ conferences and fields calls from other farmers looking to integrate their own operations.

Not content to rest on her laurels, she recently added geese to the farm’s livestock mix and plans to plant more native shrubs, wildflowers and fruit trees in the woodlots to attract pollinators and improve biodiversity.

“I’m very self-critical. I don’t often sit back and say, ‘Oh, look at all we’ve accomplished,’” Woolley said.

“It is neat, though, to think back five or six years ago when we only had a couple hundred sheep. We’ve done a lot, but there’s still so much more we can do.”

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator

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