Counting Sheep

Pursuing ambitious land stewardship goals through pasture lambing

“I am a grass farmer,” Adam MacLean tells me. We’re standing adjacent to an idyllic piece of green pasture in South Melville, tucked away off one of the Island’s many country roads. The field is full of ewes and lambs—282 four-legged ruminators to be precise—happily grazing the land. Pairs of lambs intermittently prance through the tall grasses in seeming synchronicity, diving into the underbellies of their mothers, tail nubs flitting in excitement at the taste of fresh milk.

Photo Credit: Adam MacLean

Given the view, it would be easy to mistake MacLean for a sheep farmer. In fact, that’s how I’d been referring to him since learning that he was going to become caretaker of 100 pregnant ewes. “This is my friend Adam, he’s a shepherd,” I’d say when introducing him at a party. I enjoyed people’s reactions, given the scarcity of shepherd friends in most Island circles. As I contemplate how introductions of my grass farmer friend might go over in future conversations, Adam explains the title.

“My dream has been, in farming, to develop a perennial agriculture. So an agriculture based on perennial plants as opposed to annual cultivation-seeding-harvesting, cultivation-seeding-harvesting. That goal primarily comes from an environmental perspective, however harvesting diverse perennial landscapes is really difficult for humans which is why I moved to thinking about using animals,”he said.“They do it naturally.”

I’m reminded that sunlight is our most abundant and cheapest form of energy, and it’s renewable. The only catch is humans can’t convert it into food energy directly. We have to rely on ruminating mammals – cows, sheep, and goats being the most familiar in this part of the world.

“So there’s lots of different ways to graze grass, but as you’ll see here what I’m doing is managing the flock as a fairly tight mob and moving them with more frequency, so their impact on the land, their grazing is more focussed and the ground is allowed to recover.”

Two brilliant new additions to Adam MacLean’s flock, born in May 2017//Photo Credit: Adam MacLean

As we stand beside the mobile fencing Adam has erected on Harry Smith and Jane Thomas’ land to keep the sheep contained on fresh pasture for the moment, I marvel at how far he’s come in a few short months.

I’ve known Adam for four years, having met him upon his return from far-flung adventures in tropical lands, where he got his first taste of farming. Since then, I’ve watched him dive even deeper into farming—taking intensive hands-on courses across Canada and the US, helping spearhead the development of the Legacy Garden in Charlottetown, and finally moving into livestock management at Holdanca Farms in Nova Scotia.

Adam tells me, only half jokingly, that he finally gave in and accepted that he needed to become a farmer. “This drive to start a business in a really challenging, risky industry that has ridiculous capital and overhead requirements and modest margins, that sounds great,” he says, laughing. I suspect acknowledging the challenges inherent in pursuing life as a farmer is prudent to one’s self-preservation.

Silvopasture, as Adam describes it, “is trees over pasture, integration of agroforestry, tree forestry and pasture to provide a really great environment for livestock – providing the shade they need, providing a diversity of forages and shrubs to eat. These sheep love shrubs and trees.”

In late 2016, after several years weighing his options, Adam settled on sheep farming. Then it seems fate got impatient, and a few short weeks into the research stage Adam landed upon the opportunity to purchase 100 pregnant ewes from Mark Ritchie, of Foot Flats Farm in Ontario. Ritchie had been breeding sheep for over 30 years to make them hardy enough to lamb and overwinter on pasture. This was key, because Adam had already determined he wanted to pasture farm, with no dependence on a barn during lambing or winter. “If I wanted to have sheep, I wanted them to be these sheep,” he tells me.

Photo Credit: Adam MacLean

Adam’s retelling of the story imparts that it was one of those moments in life where you have to swallow the swell of fear rising in your throat and charge forward without reservation. Otherwise, sanity might prevail. “I have a high tolerance for risk,” he notes.

And on the warm, sunny day in July that I’m visiting Adam and his flock all seems charming and peaceful, the perfect conclusion to a tale of putting it all on the line and taking a leap of faith. Except looks can be deceiving and the story’s only just begun.

Adam’s days and nights have been dominated by all things sheep—from acquiring the funds to purchase the ewes, to ensuring their safe transport to South Melville. He’s had to invest in a protection team to fend off predators (three Great Pyrenees dogs); is constantly conducting research into every facet of shepherding; and continues to work on securing lease agreements for pasture to accommodate his flock and land management goals.

The list is a long and daunting one, and even moreso for a new entrant into farming. Fortunately, he’s been able to rely on the wisdom and support of sheep farmers from near and far. He’s equally quick to acknowledge the extremely supportive community of other farmers, neighbours, friends, and family that have helped him at every step of this adventure.

“There’s such a long list of people providing me with emotional and material support,” he tells me, “without them I couldn’t do this.”

That list includes, without any hesitation, Soleil Hutchinson and John Duynisveld. Adam tells me Soleil of Soleil’s Farm in South Melville, has been a rock of support from the beginning, providing pasture land on her organic vegetable farm and plenty of invaluable advice on starting a business and managing a life-work balance. Duynisveld of Holdanca Farms in Nova Scotia is Adam’s former employer and on-going mentor.

Adam MacLean embracing his first season of grass farming and shepherding//Photo Credit: Shannon Courtney/Salty

Then there’s the late John Dunsford, his wife, Judy, and family. “John was the farmer that managed most of the land that I’m now shepherding, and I’m grateful for his good stewardship of those lands for so many years.”

He also cites Harry Smith and Jane Thomas, and the Feldstein family — the other landowners Adam is leasing land from. There’s his uncle, Rodney MacLean, who lent him a truck; Amy Smith and Verana Varga of Heart Beet Organics, who gave him a truck; his aunt and uncle, Gwen and Jim MacLean-Cruickshank, who sent him a cheque to help buy ten sheep; his parents, who gave him access to a line of credit; and Philip Bondt, who has made all the hay Adam will need to keep his flock fed through the winter. Lorna and Brian McMaster are assisting with finding and training a herding dog, and providing input on managing for quality wool.

It is with this outpouring of support that Adam’s been able to make it through the first season of lambs birthing on-pasture with his flock and sanity mostly intact. It’s a long game, this business of farming, especially when the goal is to improve the land and, eventually, create silvopasture.

He intends to grow his breeding flock to 500 ewes (each year, some of his lambs will go to slaughter and some females will remain in the flock), so it will be at least seven years before he begins to see returns on the money, time, and energy he’s investing. During this time he’ll have to manage all the risks inherent in raising sheep—from predators to parasites—while finding ways to make ends meet. It’s a good thing, then, that he keeps such fine company in the pastures he’s managing and the communities of farmers, friends, and neighbours he’s become a part of.

 

Photo Credit: Adam MacLean

About Shannon Courtney

When she’s not writing about food, she’s either cooking, eating, talking, or thinking about it. Her food adventures have included milking a Jersey cow in Australia, almost overdosing on maple syrup in Prince Edward County, and studying local food systems in Vermont as part of her Master’s thesis research. Shannon is also a holistic-nutritionist and strongly believes you CAN make friends with salad.

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