SUNDRE, Alta. — When Bob Griebel and Sandy Easterbrook bought their quarter section in the Alberta foothills, they thought they would have time for hiking and enjoying nature.
As small mixed farmers, they spend much of their time hiking around the barnyard.
Originally from Saskatoon, Griebel is a retired neurosurgeon and Easterbrook was an art conservator. These days, they run a sheep dairy and make artisan cheese and yogurt, and sell other products off the farm.
“We had such a distrust of industrial food, we decided we had better raise our own,” said Easterbrook, as she worked on her latest batch of soft white cheese made from milk from their East Friesian sheep and Jersey cows.
They started looking for a farm with good water in the 1990s. They settled on one that originated in 1910 in the Bergen community near Sundre and named it Kettle Crossing Farm.
Griebel’s family farms in Saskatchewan but he still had a lot to learn.
“It is a slow learning process,” said Griebel, who took a welding course at Olds College so he could do construction projects and learned livestock care by working with their cattle, sheep and poultry.
“The thing I most enjoy is the obstetrics part of it and delivering the lambs,” he said.
They see a growing interest among people who want to learn more about where their food comes from and raising it themselves, even if farmland prices are beyond what most can afford.
“I think young people are interested in reconnecting with nature and with other species and developing that connection. I think it is something innate in us as human beings to form that bond and there is a real satisfaction in it,” said Griebel.
For Easterbrook, the work was also intriguing.
“You sure need a huge range of skills to be a farmer. I have really come to appreciate the farmers.”
She used science to conserve paintings and sculpture and describes making cheese and yogurt as another form of art.
“In some ways, they are not that different. They are a combination of science and art and patience,” Easterbrook said.
The cheese business has evolved to include teaching. Easterbrook noted how many urbanites want to learn basic cooking skills like canning, pickling and cheese making.
She learned her craft during the winter of 2006 from a sheep cheese maker in Australia.
Back in Alberta, she had to learn food processing regulations.
“I would really like to see an artisan cheese industry in the province,” she said. “Having gone through the hoops, that is the kind of thing I can teach.”
The finished product is marketed as Sweet Meadow Farmstead Cheese.
The sheep are hand milked twice a day, yielding up to 1.5 litres of milk.
Sheep’s milk is different from cow’s milk in that it remains homogenized and has a higher fat, protein, lactose and calcium content.
Four kilograms of sheep’s milk yield one kilogram of cheese.
The sheep and cows are kept on grass and allowed to dry up over winter so the cheese and yogurt making is also a summertime activity.
The East Friesian ewes deliver twins and triplets. They keep the best females for milking and rams go to the meat market.
Some have also been sold for purebred breeding stock.
“There are a lot of small farmers who want to milk a few and there are not many sources for East Friesian sheep,” she said.
When they took over the farm, they needed a new house and improved outbuildings. Working with a builder, they designed a round house from a 42 foot diameter grain bin. It is insulated with straw bales, and the hole for the auger at the top was turned into a skylight. The cement floors are heated with hot air from a water boiler linked to solar panels.
The main part of the house is circular where kitchen cabinets and counters curve and a hallway was added to display their art collection.
Outbuildings, including a chicken coop and milking parlour, were made from straw bales.