Sheep anchor Sask. family’s diversity efforts

On the Farm: Brian and Jennifer Pearl believe in permaculture, a natural ecosystem of low inputs and no chemicals

ADMIRAL, Sask. — The fifth generation Pearl farm might look a lot like the first — chickens wandering the farm yard, pigs hunkered down in cool ground, sheep in the adjacent pasture and some still in the lambing barn.

There are a couple of turkeys, 10 cows, newly planted fruit trees, and a large vegetable garden planned.

It’s not that Prairie Pearl’s Homestead is stuck in time. Rather, it is a true mixed farm designed to be sustainable while sustaining a family of five.

Brian Pearl grew up just over the hill about three kilometres away and initially he and his wife Jennifer established their farm there.

A few years ago, they moved north to his grandmother’s farm where the house could better accommodate them and Emma, 10, Liam, eight, and Logan, three.

Surrounded mostly by big grain, their diverse farm suits them and their philosophy of permaculture — a natural ecosystem of low inputs and no chemicals — and trying just about anything.

“This is what I’ve been working towards for 22 years,” said Brian. “One thing at a time and trying to improve so my inputs are lower.”

In his grandparents’ time, the farm focused on horses, and Brian knew he wasn’t interested in that. But after he got a few sheep he decided grass-finished lamb would anchor the operation.

They lamb about 105 ewes each year. Most of the flock is British Milk Sheep crossed with Dorset, but they also have a small flock of Targhee for the wool.

The British Milk Sheep are a dual-purpose animal that Brian first encountered at a neighbour’s. Impressed with the F1 crosses, he bought a ram and for the last 10 years has used them.

Logan helps his father check on the farm’s newest lambs. | Karen Briere photo

“The breed brings body weight and lambing percentage,” he said. “You get more lambs per ewe and they get to market weight faster.”

Lambing occurs from early April to mid-May. Guard dogs and llamas provide predator control.

Most of the meat is sold through the Wandering Market in Moose Jaw, a store that focuses on organic and locally grown or raised products from farmers across the province.

Ranch House Meats in Shaunavon processes the lamb so that it complies with inspection requirements.

The Pearls also sell chicken and pork.

“This year we’re on target to do 900 chickens,” Brian said.

The chickens lead an interesting life, ranging throughout the farm yard. At the former yard, they ate berries from a 12,000-tree orchard. The pigs dined on apples.

But a fire in 2017 destroyed the orchard and the new trees aren’t yet producing. The intention is to resume using some fruit for feed while selling and eating the rest.

As part of the permaculture philosophy, the chickens also get maggots from buckets. When a chicken or a lamb dies, the body is put into a bucket with holes in the bottom, along with straw, wood chips and other carbon sources to keep the smell down.

“The flies comes along and lay eggs, the maggots come and fall to the ground and then the chickens eat the maggots,” Brian explained.

Instead of leaving the dead stock to waste, it becomes a feed source on the farm and contributes to the sustainability model. It also reduces the fly population.

There are just two sows, a boar and some piglets on the farm this year but there have been more than 60 when the market was stronger. Usually market-ready hogs are sold live off the farm.

Brian said the diversity of the farm means they are always covered if one market drops.

Their land base doesn’t allow for a large cow herd. They calve their 10 cows on pasture each June.

They have 80 acres at the home yard and a total of five quarters of land, half of which is in grain and the rest in pasture and hay.

“I have 600 acres and I can make a living off it,” Brian said. “I just have to operate differently.”

The family sells eggs, wool and grass-finished beef. They’ve milked cows and made their own butter and cheese. They’ve even tried raising rabbits.

Their garden is large, and this year, Brian is trying raised beds made of square straw bales.

With the kids out of school early this year because of COVID-19 closures, they have taken on more farm duties such as checking ewes and feeding animals. Jennifer works nights at the Cypress Hills Ability Centre in Shaunavon and has for 17 years.

“Time,” she responds, when asked what her biggest challenge is on the farm.

Jennifer grew up on a mainly grain farm closer to Swift Current and says she knew what she was getting into.

Annie the guard dog tends to the sheep. | Karen Briere photo

“He has the ideas and I help carry them out,” she laughed.

Two years ago they installed a solar panel system.

“It pretty much pays the power bill for most of the year,” Brian said. He expects it to be paid for within five years.

Not everything has worked. They haven’t had much success raising rabbits, and an idea for an underground chicken coop was a flop.

“I couldn’t get the temperature stabilized right for insect life,” Brian said.

But he doesn’t rule out trying other new things or expanding certain aspects of the homestead.

They have flats of strawberries, tomatoes and heritage vegetables ready to plant, including red valentine and dragon tongue beans.

The permaculture system provides healthier soil, better tasting food and better quality, he said, and that’s what people want.

More consumers should look to their next-door farmer.

“We are local and sustainable.”

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