Sheep and fruit work well on Ontario farm

On the Farm: The Schuylers raise sheep, maintains apple and cherry orchards and grows, corn, soybeans and wheat

SIMCOE, Ont. — When farmers are told they have a good story to tell, a prime example may be found at Simcoe, Ont.

Schuyler Farms is a diversified livestock, crop and fruit farm owned by brothers Marshall and Drew and Marshall’s sons Brett and Ryan. They grow about 3,000 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat, maintain 1,200 acres of orchards and recently integrated a sheep grazing operation.

“The whole livestock thing is really radical in southern Ontario,” said Brett, whose wife Carrie Woolley manages the lambs.

Woolley’s Lamb Farm sells grass-fed lambs into several programs. Carrie is currently on maternity leave with two children under the age of two, so Brett has temporarily stepped into her role. The couple introduced New Zealand genetics because they wanted a hardy meat breed that was parasite resistant. They also wanted a new rotation and use the sheep to graze the rows in the apple and cherry orchards as well as woodlots.

The sheep live outdoors year round, which is different for this region. However, they seem healthier with no problems with pneumonia or foot rot because they are never confined indoors, said Brett.

Land is valuable in the region and livestock may not be considered financially feasible but rotational grazing makes sense to them to improve soil, control grasslands and spread manure.

“We have a bigger vision for more livestock and incorporating the crops. Annual cropping every year, it’s hard to get excited about that future. It gets hard to tell yourself that you are making the soil better,” he said.

Corn and soybeans lack biodiversity and fields erode over time, but when livestock are added the ecosystem changes with more forage and better soil. The family sees the value beyond the price of lambs. It makes good environmental sense.

“What people lose sight of is we need to be environmentally responsible. If you are not environmentally responsible, the productivity of everything drops off,” said Marshall.

“It is creating revenue and it is creating habitat. Everything environmental doesn’t have to be at an economic loss,” he said.

Integration is profitable.

A crop of hay is cut between the rows in the apple orchards earlier in the summer. After harvest, the lambs are weaned and are turned out first into the cherry and later apple orchards. Ewes get turned out onto corn stubble fields in winter.

The fruit business has grown and consolidated over the years.

Marshall and Drew started with about 500 acres of orchards but since Brett and Ryan returned to the farm, they expanded to about 1,200 acres of apples and sour cherries.

About 12 different varieties of apples are grown. Some of the orchards are about 65 years old while others have been planted to a higher density system with newer varieties.

Orchards are labour intensive. Including family members, there are 15 full-time employees and they hire up to 150 pickers in the summer.

They rely on the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program and every year people from Trinidad and Tobago come to work for six to eight months. Some of the workers have been coming for about 30 years, said Brett.

“They are an extremely skilled, high quality labour force,” he said.

The farm pays their airfare, and they live in a large bunkhouse with modern appliances, bedrooms and recreation area.

Still, technology is needed for more efficiency and to lower costs.

Sour cherries are harvested by machine but the apples are hand-picked. Later this year, they plan to bring in North America’s first commercial apple harvester that three people can run. The harvester shakes the apples onto the ground and a sweeper gathers them up and loads them into trailers.

They have some old orchards with an uncertain future. The trees are prolific but the apples are not consistent so they are perfect for a machine harvester. The apples will be sold into fresh juice and cider markets.

“The only apple that makes money right now is the perfect grocery store apple with the perfect colour,” Brett said.

The fresh fruit goes to the 150-year-old Norfolk Fruit Growers co-operative and recently the Schuylers partnered with a second co-operative that sells peaches, plums and apples.

They also own woodlots that became overgrown. The sheep are used to clean up the ground cover and foresters come in to thin out the trees. The goal is to produce more valuable trees like white oak and soft maple. When the less desirable trees are removed, the canopy opens up, the sun shines in and new saplings and forages spread across the forest floor.

The sheep graze small paddocks encircled with electric fences. They remove half the forage and leave the rest to regenerate. That also gives new saplings a chance to grow in an area full of new plant life and wild animals.

While they keep making production innovations, the older generation is moving on and Brett and Ryan are taking over. The succession plan has taken time but the family is confident.

“We had the right mix of people that made it work. The boys didn’t grow up with a sense of entitlement,” Marshall said.

Everyone has a defined job.

Ryan handles the financial management in the office while Brett manages the day-to-day farm work but is less hands-on every year.

Now that the management torch is passing to the next generation, the two younger brothers have made changes gradually, said Ryan.

“We are always improving the management structure,” he said.

The succession plan brought Marshall and Drew a good quality of life and the opportunity to retire.

“I am ending up with a guaranteed income stream at the end of it. They’ll have me working until my dying day and have me liking it,” said Marshall.

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