On the Farm: Couple got started with sheep to relieve stress from struggling grain farm; now it’s their main business
Young, SASK. — A whimsical sanity-preservation sideline has become the salvation of what was once a floundering mixed farming operation.
Allen and Arlette Seib purchased land in central Saskatchewan in 2004 as a way to get back to the farming lifestyle of their youth.
Allen grew up on a mixed farm located a few kilometres away from the land they bought in the Allan Hills.
Arlette was raised on a grain farm near Zelma, Sask.
After a short stint in Saskatoon for some schooling and a longer stay in the town of Langham, Sask., the childless couple were longing to get back to the solitude of farm life.
But they soon realized that trying to run a 4,000 acre grain and cattle farm with Allen’s family while both holding down off-farm jobs in Saskatoon was untenable.
“It only took two and a half years and we were darn near sunk financially, mentally and emotionally,” said Arlette.
The couple were drowning in debt and suffocating from stress.
“It was pretty insane at the time. I think back and I think how the hell are we still together?” said Allen.
“It was just stupid. We never stopped. Ever.”
In an attempt to seek a diversion from the chaos of grain farming Arlette purchased five sheep so she could train her dogs how to herd the animals.
Allen convinced her to expand the flock to 15 to 20 animals to make a little money off of her hobby.
It has since blossomed to 500 Corriedale and Clun Forest ewes and is now the foundation of the farm. The cropland has all been replaced by grass and forage.
“This land needed to be grass,” said Arlette.
“This isn’t prime cropland. It’s grassland.”
Their sheep operation sticks out like a sore thumb in the area.
“It sort of separated us out as the oddballs out here because it’s all mixed farming out here, so there are people really shaking their heads at us for having sheep,” she said.
The couple worked closely with Ducks Unlimited to help restore wetlands on the farm.
They received financial support through a federal environment stewardship program to help pay for grazing management, fence building and creating watering sites.
“We took huge advantage of that (program). That was like a lifesaver,” said Arlette.
The couple is now debt-free. They own their land outright and are building a home without a mortgage.
Allen is a machinist by trade but has built his own contracting business as a millwright. He enjoys the variety of tasks such as pipe threading, machining and welding.
He helps out with tasks like fence-building and mechanical upkeep on the sheep operation but it doesn’t require much assistance because it was built to be a low-input, minimal labour business.
They don’t own much equipment outside of a tractor. The forage crops are custom cut and baled.
The ewes do their lambing on the pasture.
“We handle them maybe twice a year, once to shear them and once to give them their annual vaccination,” he said.
Arlette handles the day-to-day duties.
“It’s kind of a lifestyle set up around my joy of dogs and land,” she said.
She has six Kelpie herding dogs and seven livestock guard dogs of various breeds. The dogs are the biggest perk of running a sheep operation. Arlette has had dogs at her side since she was a little girl.
The farm produces about 1.1 market lambs per ewe, which are primarily sold as feeder lambs to Saskatoon Livestock Sales.
Most of the wool is sold to Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers Ltd., although lately she has been reserving some to sell locally and to use in her sideline business.
Arlette discovered wool-based artwork on the internet and over the years has honed her fibre art skills.
Learning how to felt wool wasn’t easy. She gave up the hobby out of frustration on more than one occasion. But something kept drawing her back.
“There is something inherently satisfying using what I have and it coming off the land, coming off the animal,” she said.
“It was just like, whoa, I got to do this.”
Not surprisingly, Arlette features dogs and sheep in her fibre art.
Each piece is original and sells for between $100 and $600, depending on the size. It takes 15 to 20 hours to complete each piece using both wet and dry felting techniques.
Creating the artwork has been rewarding but selling it has been difficult for an introvert who relishes the solitude of farm life.
“Getting on social media and going to trade shows was so unnerving for me,” said Arlette.
“It takes a lot out of me.”
But the satisfaction of creating artwork out of the animals she is raising outweighs the discomfort of peddling the pieces.
Allen said the long-term plan is to eventually double the size of the herd and for the farm to provide a living for both of them.
But they are in no hurry to get to that point because life has become exponentially better just as it is.
“We’re in a good place together-wise and just everything,” he said.