Story & photos by Cathy Gallivan, PhD
George and Melaney Matheson have literally gone back to the land. George grew up on the farm where they now raise sheep, hay and straw, but the land was sold when his father retired in 1974. The house was kept in the family, however, and George and Melaney moved into it when they were married in 1995. A year later, the land came back on the market and they were able to buy it, much to George’s father’s delight. The farm is 150 acres. Fifty acres are in hay, 20 are in pasture and the rest is a woodlot.
George’s father passed away in 2001, but his mother, Marian Matheson (95), lives in her own home adjacent to the farmhouse. Two miles down the road is her family’s farm, which George and Melaney also own. This farm is 175 acres, with 80 acres cleared.
Melaney grew up in Ontario and studied to be a United Church minister, which brought her to PEI in 1993. She and George met, married and started their family, and in 2004 she gave up her position with the church to focus on the farm and daughters Ila (12) and Rae (10). George works part time as a director for PEI Mutual Insurance.
Prince Edward Islanders love horses, so George and Melaney decided to produce hay and straw in small square bales to serve that market. They make about 15,000 bales of hay and 1,500 of straw each year. Hay sells for $2.50 per bale on the farm or $3.75 delivered in the Charlottetown area. A bale of straw is also worth $2.50; the Matheson’s don’t grow any grain themselves, but it is part of the crop rotation for potato farmers in the area, who are happy to have George and Melaney bale the straw and take it off their land.
A year after buying the farm, another opportunity arose. In 1997, they were attending a lamb dinner put on every year by the PEI Sheep Breeders’ Association. A woman at the dinner announced that she was going to Fiji for three years and needed someone to look after her sheep. The Mathesons thought that sounded like fun. They took the 10 ewes and one ram in, and had their first lambing in 1998. The woman bound for Fiji never returned and the flock of mostly registered Suffolk ewes now stands at 80 head.
The sheep are divided into two groups, one of which lambs in February and the other in May. This is accomplished by exposing the entire flock to rams wearing marking harnesses in September. When half the ewes are bred, the rams are removed.
George and Melaney are on a herd health program through the veterinary school at the University of PEI in Charlottetown. As part of this program, the students perform pregnancy checks on the marked ewes at a cost of $3 per head. George says their accuracy is good; the only surprises they get occur when ewes that were never marked (or ultrasounded) surprise them by lambing early. Unmarked ewes go back in with the rams in December for the May lambing. They also put one ram back in with the ewes that were bred earlier, “just in case”.
Both lambings take place in the barn. George finds if he is patient in the spring and doesn’t put the ewes out on the pasture too early, he can keep them out there for most of October or even into November. To this end, he keeps the pasture growing in early summer by mowing when it threatens to get ahead of the sheep. The 20 acres is fenced with six strands of electric wire on the perimeter, and five wires separating paddocks. Students equipped with weed whackers provide maintenance throughout the season.
There is lots of work to go around in the summer time. On an average day they might harvest four or five wagonloads of hay (1,000 to 1,200 bales), which are parked in the barn overnight. This usually takes them well past the supper hour. There are also chores to do with the care and feeding of the sheep. Each morning one of them handles the job of getting the wagons unloaded (with the assistance of their summer students) while the other is cutting or raking the next field or delivering hay to regular customers. After the noon meal, it is back to the field to begin filling the wagons again. An accumulator pulled behind the baler collects eight bales at a time, and a grab on the front-end loader lifts them onto the bed of the wagon, but the load is built and unloaded by hand.
The ewes, plus the May-born lambs, go to pasture around the first of June. The lambs will be weaned into the barn when the pasture starts to become limiting, or when parasites become an issue.
The Mathesons cite parasites as one of their problems. They have found Ivomec to be less effective than in the past, and are experimenting with an older drug, levamisole, which they obtained through the veterinary school.
They are also interested in learning more about FAMACHA©, which involves identifying and treating only the animals that are actively suffering, rather than the whole flock.
Apart from spreading out the work, lambing at two different times supports the Matheson’s strategy of marketing fresh lamb 52 weeks per year. The early lambs are slaughtered and sold each week through the summer and fall. Late lambs spend part of the summer on pasture, but are then brought into the barn and fed a high-forage diet. The moderate growth rate resulting from this program allows George and Melaney to sell lean, fresh lamb throughout the winter and spring, until the new crop lambs are ready in June.
George attends the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market on Saturdays throughout the year, and also on Wednesdays during the summer. The lambs are shipped on Mondays and cut on Fridays. George picks up the fresh tray-wrapped meat at the abbatoir on Saturday mornings, on his way to the market. Any packages that don’t sell that day go home and into the freezer.
The cuts are priced to provide a gross income per lamb of about $300, with a butchering cost of $1 per pound of carcass or about $50 per lamb. They also sell entire lambs, cut and wrapped, to area restaurants, and have one restaurant that buys only ground lamb.
Their marketing has been so successful they have had to resort to purchasing small numbers of lambs from other local producers. These lambs are bought-in and fed at the farm for several weeks prior to slaughter, in an effort to ensure a final product that is as similar to their own as possible. They would like to expand the flock and/or increase the prolificacy and number of lambs weaned by their existing ewes, to bring them closer to their goal of not having to buy any outside lambs.
But the stall at the farmers’ market is just the beginning. All of their wool goes to the McAusland’s mill in Bloomfield, PEI, to be made into blankets. And their neighbour, Carol MacLeod, taught Melaney how to tan lambskins. These are popular with islanders and tourists alike, at $115 for white skins and $145 for black ones. Everything sold at the farmers’ market is also available in the Matheson’s on-farm store, located at the front of the farmhouse.
Melaney sees the store as an opportunity to show both islanders and tourists what agricultural life is all about. A driveway alarm alerts them when someone pulls into the yard, giving Melaney time to meet the visitors outside, where she offers them the opportunity to see the sheep and learn a bit about the farm before doing their shopping.
Anyone who has visited Prince Edward Island knows that islanders are environmentally conscious, and George and Melaney are no exception. Their home is heated geothermically. The sheep addition to the barn has a cement floor to contain runoff from the manure, which is composted before it is spread. They have created a berm ditch, ensuring runoff from the roadway and wet areas is directed down a grassed waterway.
Their land is kept in hay, and only broken up every seven or eight years. When that happens, they allow potato farmers to row crop for one year before direct seeding back to hay. And, like many island potato farmers, they have redirected their fields by removing hedgerows, allowing the crop to be planted crossways on the hills rather than running up and down, to further prevent soil erosion. The hilliest land is kept in pasture all the time. George and Melaney’s commitment to sustainability led to them being nominated for, and winning, the 2011 Gilbert R. Clements Award for Excellence in Sustainable Agriculture.
Short-term goals include updating the farm website and getting to the point where they don’t have to buy in outside lambs. The award for sustainability came with a cash prize, which is being reinvested in the form of a new laptop computer and software (EweByte) to help them track the performance of their sheep and do a better job of selecting replacements to increase the number of lambs born and reared in the flock. With so much demand for their lamb, they have kept few replacements and haven’t worried about selling breeding stock, but want to do both in the future.
The long-term goal is to stay on the farm and continue earning their living from it, so they can be there every day when their daughters get off the school bus. And for the girls to have the option to take the farm over some day if they choose.