Carrie Woolley is a sixth-generation farmer. She’s the shepherd to a flock of 800 sheep, which graze and fertilize apple and cherry orchards on her husband’s family farm in Norfolk County in Southwestern Ontario. It’s one of the province’s few outdoor livestock-grazing operations.
People thought you were crazy for keeping sheep outside year-round. Why?
In this part of Ontario, there aren’t a lot of livestock-grazing operations. Over the last 20 or 30 years, most people have been keeping sheep or other livestock inside the barn for most of the year, other than maybe for a few months of the summertime. But my husband, Brett Schuyler, and I researched it and found a farm operation on Amherst Island up by Kingston. They were raising sheep outdoors, year-round, and so that gave us a lot of confidence. They became great mentors to us over time.
Why not just farm the traditional way?
We saw a really neat opportunity to improve the soil and to improve the land. The sheep are fertilizing the ground, and they're also mowing the orchard instead of cutting the grass and using fuel. We thought there could be a really neat synergy in the orchard.
Your parents on both sides are also farmers. What did they think?
They probably thought we were a little crazy. I think my parents were pretty excited for me because they know how much I love working with animals. I knew my dad was excited because he would come over all the time and check out the new lambs and play with them.
We planned to set it up at my husband’s family farm. So my husband’s parents, they were really interested to see what was going to happen. We had to propose a business plan to my father-in-law about incorporating the sheep into the farm operation. I can still remember him saying that he was giving us the go-ahead to do this project, but he said, “I’m not looking for more work, so if you’re going to bring sheep on the farm, I want these sheep contained and I don’t want them running down the highway.” There were some gentle warnings there to make sure we got our things straight. But he definitely saw potential in that opportunity and encouraged us to do it.
So, how did it go?
When we started in 2012, we only had about 20 sheep. We bought a bunch that were pregnant. I had never worked with sheep before, so I was a bit nervous. It was a real eye-opener, that first year, having these animals give birth and learning how to look after their young. It was a real learning curve, learning how to set up electric fencing properly. And we got a couple of guard dogs on the farm to look after the sheep. It was a neat little experiment.
And how are things going now?
We have about 800 sheep now. It took a couple of years for me to see how we could really make it work and all the positive impacts it can have on our farm.
You’re also able to sell pasture-raised lamb meat.
Yeah, that’s why we started up our Woolley’s brand lamb. It started in 2016, a few years after we began sheep farming. People were really interested in supporting and buying our product. At this time, we also started having a solid volume of lamb being produced to offer meat to restaurants. VG Meats and 100km Foods do some sales and distribution for us to restaurants, and NIKU Farms helps us reach consumers. We’ve seen an increase in demand for locally raised, pasture-raised meat. So I think that’s definitely been helping drive our sales.
Did you face much skepticism along the way?
Oh, yeah. We’ve had a lot of skepticism locally. People were thinking, “Well, you can’t have sheep outside. They won’t do well. It won’t work. They’re going to eat up all your trees.” I understand, because there weren’t many people grazing livestock in our area. It was humorous too, because you’d have people who have no farming background, who had never raised animals, especially sheep, telling you that it won’t work. So that was a little bit weird.
Did you know you always wanted to be a farmer?
It was something that was in the back of my mind. It was always a lot of fun growing up on the farm. There was lots to do, and you’re always running around outside. My parents didn’t have to bribe me or pay me to help out. It was something that I wanted to be involved in. I took this big pride in being in charge of something, like driving the tractor and moving hay bales.
How long has your family been farming for?
Five generations have been farming on the exact same home farm where I grew up. It’s been a real mixed farm. My great-great-grandfather kept livestock, pigs and a mix of vegetables. My father moved the farm towards a dairy operation, and my husband and I now grow hay, corn and soybean there. My brother and his family live on the farm now. It’s a beautiful piece of property. So it’s just really neat that it’s been in the family that long. My husband’s family farm is just five minutes down the road.
Do you feel a bit like a trailblazer in the farming community?
When I would talk to my grandmother, she remembers running chickens and pigs through her family orchard on the farm. So it’s not such a new concept. It’s just something that’s been lost or forgotten when we get focused on a single crop. But if we go back even just a couple of generations, doing this integration of crops and livestock was commonplace not that long ago.
I can’t help but ask, your given name is actually Carrie Woolley?
The last name makes people chuckle sometimes, I’ve even had someone ask if that is my real name or if I changed my name to match the occupation. So it’s a bit of an ironic twist that I’m looking after sheep with that last name.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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