Nova Scotia lamb producers see potential

From the Chronicle Herald- September 15, 2012

LOWER ONSLOW — There’s a reason Fred Hamilton’s farm has been in his family since 1760 — adaptability and a little bit of help.

Farmers, like few others, know the importance of adjusting to changing circumstances if they want to stay in operation.

Such was the case 10 years ago when Hamilton realized the beef portion of his operation was in trouble. Faced with the challenge bovine spongiform encephalopathy — better known as mad cow disease — was dropping on the market, Hamilton made a major transition to lamb.

Today, he has 250 ewes and produces 400-500 lambs a year.

“We sold off the (beef) herd and increased in sheep and that has not been a mistake,” Hamilton said Friday at his his Colchester County farm.

“It’s stayed steady and it was the proper way for us to go.”

Lamb has been a safe bet for Nova Scotia farmers like Hamilton in recent years, in no small part because of the Northumberland Lamb Marketing Co-op Ltd.

Formed 30 years ago by a group of farmers who saw the benefit of marketing co-operatively, today the Bible Hill-based operation sells about 6,000 lambs a year on behalf of about 100 farms from Nova Scotia and parts of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

Michael Isenor, the manager, said the co-op allows farmers to raise the lambs and then, when they’re ready, pick up the phone and arrange shipping to the co-op, which then arranges processing and marketing.

“They don’t have to worry about marketing the lambs or worry about the price,” he said. “All they have to worry about is getting them up to the condition we want and the weight we want.”

The co-op hopes to be able to sell beyond Nova Scotia in the future, but in the meantime Hamilton said there’s lots of interest from grocery stores and restaurants in the province. What was once a seasonal industry now keeps Hamilton busy throughout the year.

For Hamilton, the major benefit of the co-op is that it keeps neighbours from having to market against each other while ensuring the customer isn’t paying too much and the farmer is getting enough to cover costs and make a living.

“When you’re in competition with your neighbour there’s a tendency to drive the price down,” he said. “With the co-op doing the marketing you get a steady price.”

As part of Northumberland’s 30th anniversary, the co-op is holding a homecoming of sorts today at the Toney River community hall from 2-6 p.m.

Isenor said he expects to see a lot of the founding members as well as the farmers and customers who keep the operation viable today.

“We like to build relations that way,” he said.