Growing a Regenerative Fibershed Movement in Canada

Republished from the Holistic Management International IN PRACTICE Publication

Anna has found that with bale grazing the sheep’s fleece are much cleaner which saves time in the processing of the wool. PC: Long Way Homestead.

Anna Hunter was working as a community advocate fighting homelessness and poverty in Vancouver, British Columbia in the early 2000s. She also had a strong connection to fiber arts after learning how to knit in 1999. After taking a leave from her work, she decided to open a yarn store in East Vancouver in 2009 (Baaad Anna’s Yarn Store). But the really big move came when she and her husband, Luke, decided to move to St. Genevieve, Manitoba (a bedroom-community of Winnipeg) in 2015 to be closer to family and start a farm. In 2016, they started Long Way Homestead and got their first livestock.

“As I looked around for local yarn for my yarn shop, I realized there wasn’t any available local yarn,” says Anna. There are many people supporting the local food movement, but people don’t realize the importance of being connected to local textiles like we are with food. There are many sheep farms but no local wool options.

“We decided to sell the yarn store and wanted to start a homestead to grow food and fiber. We looked at British Columbia but the land was really pricey. We decided if we were going to start over in a new community, why not move somewhere where there would be some support—grandparents and aunts—and the land was way more affordable. That’s why decided on Manitoba. Even still, moving to a rural community was a bit of a shock.

“We lived in East Vancouver and didn’t have a car. We biked everywhere and walked to the grocery. Now I had to start shopping for two weeks of food and drive everywhere. But, on the other hand, the kids could run wild outside and I could grow my own veggies. I was feeling really isolated. One day I needed to buy some straw for the pigs. I ended up chatting with the guy at the feed store and he mentioned that his wife just had a second baby. I thought I would reach out to her to support her in her rural loneliness. But she wasn’t lonely at all and was connected to a huge community. Christel became my best friend and I got closer to her

community. I had to be willing to change my expectations to do that. In the city, community is easy. There are a lot of people I would have chosen to be friends with near me. You don’t have the same variety of choice in the country, but all these people are willing to help you. You develop relationships with them because of the common values and needs that come from living in the country.

Anna Hunter has been able to create the local yarn she had searched for when she owned her own yarn shop in Vancouver. PC: Long Way Homestead.

“Luke and I are both first generation farmers. I didn’t really understand what regenerative agriculture was before we moved. But I started reading everything I could. I realized at that time how disconnected we are from our clothing and that people don’t see clothing as agricultural.” Anna and Luke began addressing that gap by turning Long Way Homestead into a fiber farm and wool mill, serving their local community of other fiber farmers as well as spreading the word about the importance of having a strong fibershed.

Developing a Wool Mill & Value-Added Products

Anna raises predominantly Shetlands although she has a few Merino crosses. Her goal is to get to a registered Shetland flock. They use guard llamas to protect the flock. The best wool quality occurs during the first five years of life, and Anna is focused on breeding for the color and fiber quality that she wants in her flock. She also times the shearing of her sheep with lambing to get the best quality of wool. This can be tricky as shearers are in short supply.

While Anna and Luke own 140 acres, they are currently grazing only 40 acres for production. They initially grew their flock to 45 sheep, but have reduced their breeding stock to 25 sheep and are in a holding pattern before they decide to add more. One factor that has been an issues is trying to figure out a way to connect a portion of good grazing land on their property that is cut off from the other grazing area by a wetland. Their plan is to bring on another 80 acres eventually and bring on a different breed with some Romneys that do well with wet land. Reducing the flock right now has not hurt revenue because their main revenue generation is the fiber mill. They are also looking at agro-tourism options given the amount of education they are doing and with the number of people visiting their farm. “We have 300-500 people a year that come to the farm with tours and workshops and some big events like a shearing festival and market we run with other vendors,” says Anna. But, with a $250,000 loan to pay off from their investment in the mill, the focus on wool processing is critical, and they are almost ready to pay the loan off entirely.

Luke Palka and Anna Hunter of Long Way Homestead with their children. PC: Long Way Homestead

Approximately 80% of the wool processed in the mill is for the Long Way Homestead’s own line from their own wool. The other 20% is processing other people’s wool. Currently there is a 12-18 month wait time for people to have their wool processed, but once the mill is paid off, they will switch that ratio and process other people’s wool more. While this will mean less revenue for Long Way Homestead, it will grow the industry as a whole, which will mean there may be more wool available down the line for Long Way Homestead to produce other value-added products.

Anna has worked on her grazing planning to slowly graze more brushland each year to clear a path to a productive grazing area she currently doesn’t have easy access to. PC: Long Way Homestead

Another source of income is their week-long residency for fiber artists. They provide studio space for research and production at Long Way Homestead as well as also offering a Field School which provides learning and mentorship in the field of regenerative fiber farming, sustainable textile production, natural dye systems and hands-on textile education. They also have a cabin that is used for the residency and a dye garden and offer a fiber CSA.

They have also experimented with a “SponsorSHEEP” program, with a starting price of $135, which was highly successful. Anna is looking at how to adapt this program as it is very labor intensive because each sponsorship lasts a full year starting with lambing and regular emails to keep the sponsor apprised of the progress of the sheep they have sponsored, while bring the “fiber farm experience” to consumers and helping to educate and connect these consumers to the broader fiber community and provide a greater understanding of what it takes to raise sheep and grow and produce wool. The SponsorSHEEP also includes sheep naming rights and a certain amount of wool or fleece.

Anna notes that she has been the recipient of wonderful support from sheep producers and fiber farmers who have served as mentors. She has also read a lot of books and engaged with the Holistic Management Canada network to help learn about how to better manage her land. All these resources have helped her improve the profitability of her business.

“I heard about Holistic Management in 2016 when I read a book about fencing,” says Anna. “Then I bought the Holistic Management audiobook and listened to it. I realized this is what we were aiming for and our goals for the land. We started without the holistic goal, but realized there was this community of people like us. Then we attended the 2018 Holistic Management Canada Conference.

Anna is working toward a registered flock of Shetland sheep. PC: Long Way Homestead

“My dad grew up in conventional grain farm and I picked rocks as a kid. I had no idea that there could be a different way. At the conference, I realized that a lot of the livestock producers were talking cattle, but there was an opportunity for producers raising sheep. Right now, wool can be a liability, and there are also challenges with the lamb market. At first, I had a hard time connecting with the cattle producers. I realized that the strongest role I had to play was to start providing more value for the wool producers. I prioritized buying from regenerative agriculture and Holistic Management producers. Now I have a larger influence as I buy wool from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and even some from Ontario.”

The Long Way Homestead Fiber Mill is the most lucrative enterprise on the farm. PC: Long Way Homestead

An additional investment Anna made was to buy a wool pelletizer and buy wool from other farmers. Many of them are burning their wool because the price they can get for it is so low on the commodity market. Anna had an apprentice spend 50% of her time making wool pellets which people purchase to use in their gardens. She also wholesales these pellets to garden stores. “Wool is a carbon sink,” says Anna. “It can replace nitrogen fertilizer as it has an NPK ratio of 9-0-2. It is also great for water retention in soil as it can hold 30% of its weight in water. Likewise, the phosphorus in wool pellets is not water soluble so it is a better form of delivering phosphorus without pollution in water runoff. Gardeners us a ½ cup to 4 liters in their soil, or they may target transplants by using a tablespoon of the wool pellets around the transplants. I also want to develop wool insulation as another product down the line.”

While Anna works on the micro-level she envisions all of these products being produced at scale across Canada addressing a host of issues. For example, a lot of water is used for scouring (cleaning) the wool. This water could be turned into compost water, rather than going into the waste water system, to irrigate crops with the micro-nutrients in the water. She would like to see double or triple the amount of wool in production and develop regional wool processing centers that could be situated where there is energy, water, and other abundant resources.

“I was a community legal advocate around homelessness and poverty and was involved in community organizing,” says Anna. “Within my commitment to social justice was also environmental justice. I am passionate about addressing those issues in the world. All my work has been expressions of the same passion. I want to work to create alternative systems. My community-based yarn store was for creating safe space. The farm was to create an alternative system for textiles.

“My focus is on educating the public. The textile system is so incredibly backward. 150 years ago, we were growing and processing 90% of our clothes. Now it is less than 2%. We’ve lost the ability and infrastructure to do what we were doing before. Now we have micro-plastics in our clothing, and the lifecycle of those clothes is 100 of years to breakdown. Agriculture is looking at traceability and local in our food, but we have not made that jump for clothes. I’m starting that conversation with our sheep and the mill. I hope that conversation will lead to a revolution of how we use and dispose of our clothing.”

Grazing One Bite at a Time

Anna is part of the Holistic Management Canada’s Holistic Management’s Regenerative Accelerator Program which includes baseline Ecological Outcomes Verification. PC: Long Way Homestead

Anna has permanent fencing for her exterior fencing and uses electric netting for the interior. They were involved in Holistic Management Canada’s Holistic Management’s Regenerative Accelerator Program, which was developed to increase the speed of adoption of regenerative agriculture practices in Manitoba. This program provides mentorship from a Holistic Management educator and up to $10,000 for the purchase of equipment that will help the producer adopt a regenerative agricultural practice.

“From the accelerator program we bought a walk-behind brush mower to clear land for fencing,” says Anna. “Now we can get more into the bush with our grazing. We don’t have any tractors as we don’t want to invest in that machinery. We have between 6-8 weeks of plant recovery and we’ve begun to integrate silvopasture practices. Our paddock sizes are ¼ to a full acre, which gives us one to two days of grazing. We had a tough drought year two years ago so we had to start feeding in July. We want to increase our grazing base and we need a steady supply of hay for the winter.

“We set up winter feeding as bale grazing and we’ve been doing that for four years. This has significantly improved our wool quality, to put the feed on the ground rather than in the feeders. The fleeces are so much cleaner. We are also doing research on tree planting as forages. We’ve been harvesting willows for the sheep. We are also harvesting the willow stems for basketry classes. We have had pigs and we will bring them back when the time is right.

“We’ve definitely seen a decrease in bare ground and an increase in productivity and species diversity, including insects, and better water infiltration. The land had peat moss stripped off it 30 years so we have a lot of standing water and oxidizing grasses. With pigs we can get disturbance and then we can integrate the sheep and chickens as well.

“The Regenerative Accelerator Program also helped me realize I don’t have to go so big, but I can look at what is manageable. There aren’t endless amounts of energy. Because of the two droughts we had and one summer of flooding, I realized I need to focus on water capture for extreme weather. We are in a low-lying area near a wetlands, so we are really affected by extreme weather.

“With the Regenerative Accelerator Program, I started my plan to immediately get 80 acres into grazing. But there was no road access to it and I have to go through a walkway. We ran into some problems and I was super discouraged. Then I realized that it comes back to patience. I was trying to double my production without infrastructure. In the last month of the program, I discovered I could clear 15 acres a year with sheep that would create a path to that 80 acres, while stacking enterprises with the willow branches. I just needed a new solar charger, a brush mower, and three more fences. It really changed my whole perspective. I have people in my life, to remind me to just take it down a little bit. Dana Penrice was my mentor, and I got help from Takota Coen. He helped me see the loan as a logjam so that I should focus on that first.

“I love everything about farming. I’m still fresh and new. I’m learning so much every single day. I didn’t grow up in ag and my understanding of ag was very limited. To come across regenerative agriculture and permaculture has been a breath of fresh air. I truly love sheep and I love how they interact with the land as well as each other and us. I love to watch the lambing. And, I love the connections I found with other farmers equally passionate about land and soil health.”

To learn more about Long Way Homestead visit: https://www.longwayhomestead.