Sheep farmers join forces to bring lamb to the tables of Canadians

Demand for lamb products is expanding across Canada, and a new collective of farmers is hoping to grow the sheep farming industry to meet it.

There is a huge potential for growth, Ryan Greir, chair of both Alberta Lamb Producers and the National Sheep Network, told the Calgary Eyeopener.

“Lamb demand in Canada is growing,” he said, “This growth is spurred by consumers being adventurous in cooking, and the growing Canadian population. But the largest growth is in the new Canadian and ethnic population.”

Greir is part of a group of Canadian sheep producers who have strayed from the herd and left the Canadian Sheep Federation. They created the National Sheep Network, which is made up of producers in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, and hope to find new ways to promote their industry.

“So those three provinces chose to form together to work on issues that are important to our provinces and to our producers,” Greir said. “We chose to focus on business risk management, traceability, animal health and welfare and market intelligence.”

Greir says the group is also going to work on finding ways to lobby the federal government for help in promoting and growing the industry.

Sheep farmers in Canada are in competition against lamb-exporting countries with warmer climates. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

One of the biggest challenges is our climate. Canadian farmers have to compete with lamb imported from warmer climates, and winter lambing requires extra infrastructure.

“It’s mainly the seasonality, and that’s one of our obstacles,” Greir said. “So the seasonality of our product being north of the 49th parallel, our product is impacted by cold weather and in some cases long winters. So New Zealand and Australia have an advantage of producing at a different season than we do, and they utilize that to bring lamb in when we’re typically seeing a shortage.”

Greir says under the old system, there just wasn’t a structure in place to support it. Frustrated with the status quo, the group broke free.

“Different provinces left for different reasons, so it was essentially a vote of non-confidence with the current structure. And together we formed this organization,” Greir said. “We feel that using proper governance and using our own resources to bring forward the ideas, and be that national voice for the business of sheep farming, is important to us.”

Collectively, the group is responsible for 70 per cent of Canada’s sheep production, and owns 72 per cent of Canada’s ewe flock.

Greir says it’s time to work on getting away from the seasonality of the farming, access global markets, and eventually bring Canadian prices down for consumers of Canadian product, which is often priced higher than imports.

“In terms of scalability, I think as we improve our methods and as we improve our ability to produce sheep out of season, we’ll become more and more competitive in that marketplace.”


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