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A Consumer-Driven Start-Up

“Find Needs & Fill ‘Em”

By Alan Harman

Martti Lemiuex and his family traded in the crowded streets of Toronto for a sheep farm in the idyllic and remote Sylvan Valley on the Great Canadian Shield.

And to shape their rural vision, the family is building the farm from scratch.

“We’re just starting out,” Lemieux says. “Our sheep have been secured, fencing is going up, water lines are going in, a grazing plan is on the table and we’re lining customers up.”

Family farming with specialized sheep and markets. L to R: Melanie and Nora, Kian, Aidan and Martti Lemiuex. (Photo by Tim Harris)
Family farming with specialized sheep and markets. L to R: Melanie and Nora, Kian, Aidan and Martti Lemiuex. (Photo by Tim Harris)

Get A Market First, Then Sheep

Developing mutually beneficial relationships, the former industrial designer believes, is the blueprint to his success as a producer of Icelandic sheep 20 miles (32km) outside Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

Before the first sheep arrived at their Valleyfield Farm, the family had a marketing plan in place that focused on building relationships with potential customers for when the first sheep products go onto the market next spring.

“We’ll be primarily marketing Icelandic sheep’s milk cheeses and yogurt,” Lemieux says. “I’m not sure there is such a thing as an assured market. And I say that good-heartedly. We intend to direct-market our products and that means relationship building.”

To do this, the family planted a vegetable garden.

“We decided we needed to be selling at the farmers market in our first year to start building those relationships that we need to make direct marketing work, and the quickest way to make that happen was market gardening and fresh baking,” he says.

Lemieux and his wife bought their property in October 2008. Melanie, who was pregnant, moved there with their two young boys Kian, 5, and Aidan, 3, while Martti stayed in Toronto until January.

“We opened up the soil for a one-acre market garden in May, the same month our daughter Nora was born,” he says. “Learning to work with newly opened, stubbornly rich clay soils was (and still is) a pretty intense learning curve, especially while climbing all the other learning curves such as high-tensile fencing, waterlines, barn renovations, stockmanship and managing a young family.

“The garden is pulling through, the produce is well-received and the relationships we are building are priceless. So to answer the question, no there isn’t an assured market, but we’re building one, one relationship at a time.”

Modern Info Speeds Start-Up; Cuts Investment

Before Lemiuex started out on his own, he met a range of farmers—graziers, food marketer-producers, cheesemakers, writers and innovative developers of local food economies. The couple volunteered on and learned from vertically-integrated farms that are well in the black using sustainable agricultural practices.

“The holistic-management decision-making framework has shaped much of our approach,” Lemieux says. “Learning how to define the whole that we are managing, forming a holistic goal to manage it and a decision-making process to test it against, were strong lessons for us.”

The farm consists of 80 acres thriving with biodiversity.

“We have 50 acres in pasture, 20 in mixed forest and 10 acres of riparian edge where Bar River crosses through the fields, as well as an annual spring creek running the length of the property,” Lemieux says. “It’s well-suited for the managed grazing of Icelandic sheep and other ruminants that can feed off of a wide range of energy levels.”

When he bought the property it was a farm in name only.

“Infrastructure was (and still is) a challenge, so the first things we planted in our pastures were anchor posts,” he says. “Using the Holistic Management Handbook [Butterfield, Bingham & Savory, Wash. D.C., Island Press 2006], in concert with the corresponding textbook, we worked out a series of grazing cells to rotationally graze our flock.

“We used Google Earth a lot for planning the pasture rotations and measuring paddocks. It was invaluable working from a topological and three-dimensional perspective, making print outs, doing field walks with this in hand in an iterative cycle to figure things out.”

Fencing became the next learning curve.

Modern fences cut costs, ease revisions in the grazing paddock scheme.
Modern fences cut costs, ease revisions in the grazing paddock scheme.

“We now are putting in a 5-strand, 12.5-gauge high-tensile fence on Powerflex lineposts, tensioned and joined with Gripples, charged with a Stafix6Xi and temporarily subdivided with braided polywire using O’Brien’s 3:1 geared reels and Treadaline posts,” Lemieux says.

“This should give us the flexibility we need to manage our pastures for optimal performance.”

Another challenge was in knowing what they were working with from a soil perspective.

“We’ve recently sent out two soil samples to International AG labs in Minnesota for a comprehensive analysis of biologically active nutrients using Morgan Extract methodology,” Lemieux says.

He sent one composite sample from his garden and another composite sample from the pastures. Among other things, such as trace minerals, Lemieux is really interested in the calcium-magnesium-boron relationship in his soils and the microbes that facilitate them.

“It’s through an understanding of how to optimize these types of relationships to better balance our soils and build deep nutrient density that we can develop a healthy flock and a sound business model,” he says.

“At Valleyfield our vision is to abundantly nourish person and place and to live with a deep commitment to regenerative agriculture by forging strong links into the local food chain through the development of rich topsoil and nutrient-dense foods.”

Leaving Urbanity, But Not Its Market Advantages

The path to Valleyfield passed through Toronto.

Martti and Melanie were both “steel town” kids who left their respective hometowns of Sault Ste. Marie and Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, to study and work in the big city. Melanie was a clothing designer.

“It wasn’t until we married and Melanie was pregnant with our first child that ‘real food’ became a conscious part of our lives,” Lemieux says. “By real food, I mean food with high nutrient density and consequently rich in flavor.

“We always enjoyed good food and were fortunate enough to eat well, but the informed decision to buy our food directly from farmers hit its stride with an introduction to the work of Sally Fallon through her book Nourishing Traditions and the Weston A. Price Foundation. This was when we started buying our food from the farm gate as well as from farmers markets.

“It was at the farm gate that we not only discovered good food and great people, but also the politics and policies that shaped their lives and subsequently all our lives through the food available on the store shelves.”

Needless to say, the romantic notion of farming quickly faded in these new realities.

“Our relationship as consumers transitioned to one of co-producer as we started working on farms on weekends and vacations in exchange for the learning experience and groceries. Agriculture is trying work requiring a sound mind, a steady hand and a strong back. But it gets in your blood. And so here we are.”

Lemieux opted for sheep farming partly out of marketing flexibility, partly because of Canada’s restrictive agricultural policies.

“But it was mostly out of our interest in the potential for Icelandics to perform in our environment, under our market conditions,” he says. “We’ll be making and marketing sheep’s milk cheese and yogurt, lamb, mutton and hogget, as well as their fleece.”

In doing so they are becoming part of the pockets of farming communities that speckle the remote and rugged area. The land they’re working with was first cleared more than 200 hundred years ago in an area that has been shaped and reshaped by the progression of early French, English and late Scandinavian immigration.

“I grew up in Sault Ste. Marie and ended up moving back home to an area I didn’t even know existed that was sitting in my own backyard, so to speak,” Lemieux says.

“We started looking all over the Algoma region for about five years, but it wasn’t until we discovered the farming communities dotting the Canadian Shield we knew we found our home.

“As our focus is to direct market, access to those markets was a prime concern. We’re within easy driving distance of Sault Ste. Marie (population 75,000), a stone’s throw from the cottage community of McCarroll Lake, while Sudbury, (population 110,000) is about 3.5 hours away.”

Icelandics offer an unusual array of products: Widely-liked meat flavor, in-demand wool, valuable horns, lots of rich milk, colorful pelts and hardiness on grass-based husbandry.
Icelandics offer an unusual array of products: Widely-liked meat flavor, in-demand wool, valuable horns, lots of rich milk, colorful pelts and hardiness on grass-based husbandry.

Getting Sheep

Last summer the family brought in a small flock of two rams, five ewes and seven ewe lambs from two different source flocks.

“The sheep arrived and escaped from the barn, to be rounded back up three hours later,” Lemieux says. “We definitely have one of those leader sheep in the flock I’ve been reading about—not sure what we’re going to do about that one. Regardless, they’re one of the finest flocks of Icelandics I’ve seen, with majestic horns, great colors and excellent temperament.”

The couple was careful in their animal selection.

“We were looking for sheep that are nativized to this region (or close to it), so a limiting factor was regional availability,” Lemieux says. “Despite the small flock numbers, given the breed’s prolific nature, we think our numbers will be on good ground within three years.”

Lemieux says he will be breeding towards realizing the full genetic potential of his flock with a special interest in breeding towards high butterfat producers.

“High butterfat will give us the quality we’re looking for in our cheeses and if it works the same in ovines as it does in bovines, high butterfat also has a profound influence on meat tenderness and taste,” he says.

“It sounds lofty, but our ideas are grounded on building balanced soils with a well established soil food web that has the ability to cycle nutrients, sequester carbon and effectively manage water cycles.”

Lemieux is convinced this will give a sound foundation to work from, as well as to breed well-rounded Icelandics.

“That being said, the rams we’ll be raising for meat will be rotated through the pastures a little quicker to cream off the early fall flush of grass in time for slaughter,” he says. “We’ve seen sound results line-breeding cattle and will be line-breeding our sheep for the selection and reinforcement of desirable characteristics.”

Lemieux settled on the Icelandic breed after attending a grazing workshop in Missouri in the United States taught by Greg Judy, author of Comeback Farms, and Ian Mitchell-Innes from Holistic Management International. They introduced him to three concepts that influenced his approach.

“One is ‘gut capacity’—the ability of proportionally large rumens to efficiently digest substantial amounts of forage and fatten on that alone. The second is ‘small phenotypes’—the forage economics of grazing two smaller ruminants versus one large ruminant. The third is ‘flerd’ grazing or multi-species grazing—running a flock of sheep with a herd of cattle.

“For us that would mean grazing our Icelandics with Highland cattle—or Lowline/Highland crosses—as a single bonded ‘flerd.’ The net effect being you can produce two (or more) income streams while feeding off of the multiple energy levels of one land base.”

Even so, Lemieux says his choice of breed was not purely rational.

“For us, animals not only have to turn a profit, but our ‘personalities’ need to be complementary,” he says. “We looked at a lot of breeds, some such as Jacob sheep were fascinating, and others, including British milk sheep, presented extremely attractive yields. The combination of complementary personalities and flexible market dynamics led us to Icelandics.”

Both Martti and Melanie have an appetite for learning that they now are using to bone up on producing nutrient-dense Icelandic meat and milk with high butterfat for cheese and yogurt, as well as fleeces for felting and yarn.

“There are also a few perks that Icelandics have that work in our favor,” Lemieux says. “Easy lambing, no tail-docking and no need to castrate rams intended for slaughter in their first year. Rams conceived in November, born in April, will finish in September to October, before the next breeding season starts.

“Simply put, we can’t afford a hobby. We need sheep that can work for us on a scale that two people can manage while raising three young children. Essentially we’ll be managing the vertically integrated business of converting solar energy into meat, milk and fiber products we then will direct market to convert into dollars to produce a living wage.

“It sounds like a tall order, but working with an aggressive forager with low maintenance and broad marketing flexibility are extremely attractive traits.”

Why Icelandics?

During his research, Lemieux learned there are a few names in the Icelandic sheep world that are legendary. One of them is Stefania Dignum-Sveinbjarnardottir, the woman who brought Icelandics to North America.

“While she has passed on, the sheep she brought to this continent are flourishing and we were hoping to find some sheep from these original bloodlines,” he says. “Jeff Dunn, whose mother Patricia Dunn is a listed breeder with the Icelandic Sheep Breeders Association, was one person whose patience with our endless poking and prodding made this possible.”

Lemieux, who plans to seek organic certification, also wants to grow several grain varieties.

“While we may use grains for flushing, the sheep will be on a strictly forage/browse/graze based diet,” he says. “We intended to grow grains to supplement the forage based diet of pigs and chickens we plan for the farm in the future.

“We want to make the farm self-sustaining and more stable to limit our reliance on outside feed sources,” he says.

Another reason the couple chose Icelandics was because they could perform on grazing alone and didn’t need grain for good gains.

The flock is to be outdoor-kept in a forage-based plan; letting the sheep harvest the land's produce cuts labor and improves efficiency.
The flock is to be outdoor-kept in a forage-based plan; letting the sheep harvest the land’s produce cuts labor and improves efficiency.

The Icelandic breed is a direct descendant of the sheep brought to the island they are named after by Viking settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries. It is of the North European short-tailed type and related to such breeds as Finns, Romanov, Shetland, Spelsau and the Swedish Landrace.

The breed is of medium size with mature ewes weighing 150-160 lbs. and rams 200-220 lbs. The ewes are fine-boned with open face and good legs and udders. The breed has both polled and horned individuals of both sexes but is primarily horned. Icelandic sheep are not particularly tall but broad and have an excellent conformation as a meat breed. They are seasonal breeders; the ewes start to come into heat around early November, lasting through April.

The lambing rate is about 170% to 180%, with increases possible through more intensive management. They are early maturing, and the ewes can easily lamb at 12 months of age. Ram lambs can start breeding around seven months old.

Life expectancy is long. Healthy ewes commonly lamb until they are 12 to 14 years old. The breed is famous for its wool. The fiber is dual coated and comes in many natural colors but white is most common.

Most of the sheep are individualistic, and flocking instinct is poor. They tend to spread out, which makes them good users of sparse pasture. They are good browsers and appear to enjoy eating brush and wild grasses. The ewes are good mothers and high milk producers and were used as milk animals in Iceland until the middle of the 20th century.

The lambs are born small but grow quickly. On good pastures they should reach 80-90 pounds in four to five months, at which time they are weaned. Dressing percentage is about 45%. The meat is fine grained and has excellent flavor.

Local Challenges

The Lemieux farm is tucked away in a shallow valley and is buffered from the prevailing northwesterlies that tend to rip through the region. Winter temperatures can reach lows of -40° F (-40° Celsius), but usually hover between 25° and 39° F (-4° and +4° C). Snow slowly builds to about 2.5 feet deep.

“With access to outdoor shelter, primarily forest windbreaks, we intend to keep our flock outdoors and bale-graze them,” Lemieux says. “During late autumn we will be converting our powered fence from a ground-return system to a wire-return system before the frost line and snow cover renders the fence ineffective. This winter will only be our second here, so we’ll see if it plays out the same.”

There are coyotes, wolves and bears in the area.

“Predation is an issue that preoccupied us for some time. But after talking with various grazers in our area as well as talking to people with Icelandics in similar areas such as northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, we feel comfortable in our approach,” Lemieux says.

“We’ve invested in a Great Pyrenees livestock guardian dog bred by Valerie Tooth at Glenire Acres Farm in Hagersville, Ontario. There is a great story about a “Pyr” in our area that was spotted proudly standing over a dead coyote. It’s stories like these that give these dogs a great reputation.

“We feel coupling a livestock guardian dog with the bunching instinct of a ‘flerd’ and the protection of electrified five-strand will give us the security we’re looking for.”

Lemieux says he has yet to see “flerd” bunching for himself.

“We understand that when threatened, bonded sheep run towards cattle and huddle in the center, while the cattle when threatened will turn and face the predator,” he says. “Given Icelandics’ loose flocking behavior, we’ll have to see how—and if—this will work.

“You’ll be able to see our progress at www.valleyfieldfarm.ca”.

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