By Barbara Johnstone Grimmer
Lorea Tomsin wears many hats in the world of sheep: shearer, wool crafter, purebred breeder, lamb producer, direct marketer, hauler, mentor and industry volunteer. She marches to the beat of her own drum and has developed a unique way to farm and add value to all of her products and services.
Lorea lives in Sidney, BC, at the southern tip of Vancouver Island on the Saanich Peninsula. Her interest in agriculture and sheep began at an early age. She wanted a cow but got a sheep instead, when she was nine. She bought her first purebred, a Silver Down Suffolk from W&K Gould when she was 12 or 13.
Lorea taught herself to shear by studying a poster for the Sunbeam ShearMaster and waited for a chance to be home alone to try her hand. The opportunity came when she was 13, and she proudly showed the family her accomplishment on their return.
“That’s what happens when your daughter isn’t allowed to mow the lawn,” Lorea explains. “My brothers always mowed the lawn; I had to wash the dishes.”
She learned by reading everything she could find about sheep and observing what worked and what didn’t. She also volunteered to help purebred breeders at sheep shows and was mentored by them. Lorea gives credit to the Cadsands in particular. “Mrs. Cadsand was a perfectionist and a phenomenal worker,” remembers Lorea. Lorea also helped younger sheep enthusiasts, teaching 4-H members how to select, care for, and show their projects.
As she grew into a young woman, Lorea continued shearing, even when eight months pregnant. She has sheared every year since, even when she didn’t have her own sheep. “Fifty-two years ‘n’ crawling,” says Lorea.
Lorea travels wherever the shearing jobs are, and enjoys the work and seeing different flocks and setups. In addition to shearing, she also worms, trims feet and assists with flock health and management.
Lorea also worked with wool as a child, learning how to knit and sew. “My mom taught me; she would even knit on airplanes back when you were still allowed to take knitting needles on board.”
Lorea used to make handmade wool duvets, but now takes her wool (as well as other people’s) to Custom Woolen Mills in Alberta to be made into duvets there. She makes her own hand-dyed socks, needle-felting kits, sweaters, vests, pillows, slippers, socks, and toques. She also sells tanned sheepskins. These products are marketed through her website (countrywools.com), as well as through Christmas craft fairs, wool events, farmers’ markets, and a nearby store that sells local products. Wool is also in demand on Vancouver Island by First Nations knitters who make Cowichan sweaters, and some of Lorea’s wool is washed and carded to provide them with local fibre.
Lorea delivered mail for 33 years for Canada Post, in BC, Alberta, and Quebec, returning to BC in 1990 to be closer to her aging parents. The sheep bug returned in 2001. Her oldest boy, Launey, had graduated by then, and the two younger ones, Emma and Tommy, were in high school. Lorea ventured into East Friesians, buying from the owner of Salt Spring Island Cheese after shearing their 90 ewes. She also had her eye on Suffolks, and brought some back from a purebred sale in Alberta, including a nice ram from Bill Matejka.
There are currently 80 ewes in Lorea’s flock, which is about twice the provincial average. Lorea breeds registered Charollais and Suffolk sheep, and her commercial flock has Finn, Rideau, Southdown, Ile de France, Texel, and even Icelandic breeding. She admits to having an interest in various breeds and blends them into her breeding program to meet her requirements for producing lamb as well as wool.
The flock is kept on rented pastures most of the year. A central, rented farm has a good-sized barn for storing feed and wool and housing ewes at lambing time, plus outbuildings and pastures to manage her different groups.
The sheep have access to grass from spring to fall. Feed is costly on Vancouver Island, so Lorea monitors ewe productivity and does what she can to control her costs. The sheep are divided into groups with similar natures and needs, and Lorea feeds an alfalfa-based diet to pregnant and nursing ewes. A creep feeder offers free-choice alfalfa, and a self-feeding hopper inside the creep delivers a small, but steady, stream of grain to the lambs as they feed. Lorea has one part-time employee, which allows her to schedule shearing trips or deliveries.
When asked about her concerns for the future, Lorea first mentions having a predictable land base for farming. Farming on rented land is quite common on southern Vancouver Island. Landowners in BC who lease their land to farmers get a reduction in their property taxes, an excellent incentive to keep land in agriculture. However, many property owners are aging or have other reasons to sell their land, making tenure for the farmer less than secure.
The other concern Lorea has is competition with cheaper, imported lamb and getting paid fairly. She finds that the public often doesn’t support quality, local meat as she feels they should.
Anyone who knows Lorea knows how fully she immerses herself into whatever she is doing. She has built her business on value-added and quality products. Lamb is processed locally and marketed directly as Pasture Perfect Local Lamb, through as many as three different farmers’ markets.
Breeding stock is sold privately, or through breeders’ sales, including the All Canada Sheep Classic sponsored each year by the Canadian Sheep Breeders’ Association. Lorea’s animals are selected for scrapie resistance, and she is one of three BC breeders registered on the GenOvis program for genetic improvement. Lorea finds that GenOvis is the best tool for genetic selection beyond visual evaluation, which many BC breeders still rely on. GenOvis requires more work and record-keeping, but Lorea says it’s worth it.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, Lorea has been president of the Inter-Island Sheep Breeders Association since 2011 and recently stepped down after nine years as BC’s director on the board of the Canadian Sheep Breeders Association (CSBA). She has also organized field days and workshops for sheep producers, as well as mentoring many new producers.
Lorea organized the CSBA’s AGM in Victoria in 2017 and worked on the All Canada Sheep Classic when it was held in Barriere, BC, in 2013. She was also one of three delegates who travelled to Mexico on behalf of the CSBA and Canadian Sheep Federation in 2016. The invitation by the Mexican government to send a delegation to Mexico Alimentaria came as a result of Canada’s participation in the Canada-Mexico Partnership meeting in Ottawa. Lorea noted that Mexico views agriculture as incredibly important and that Mexicans are proud of their production.
Lorea says, “I enjoyed my time on the CSBA board of directors, as I thought that the team worked professionally to advocate for the sheep industry, both the purebred and, by extension, commercial industries.”
Lorea’s grandfather came from the Shetland Islands in Scotland. In 2014 Lorea made a trip to Shetland and sheared on her cousin’s farm in a community shearing event. She noted that many women there are shearers, and that sheep from the community pastures were gathered up to be sheared and sorted by the entire community. This community cohesiveness struck a chord with Lorea.
“I enjoy helping people obtain beneficial information on raising sheep, learn to solve health issues with confidence, and do the best job they can for their business,” says Lorea. “Any trick I find that is an idea for a breed, or a product, or a use for someone’s wool, I am happy to share. I believe in farmers helping each other, and the benefits are for all.”
Barbara Johnstone Grimmer is a professional agrologist and sheep farmer living on Pender Island, BC.