Sheila and Eric Hasselstrom have a dryland farm in north-central Idaho on the Camus Prairie near the town of Winchester south of Lewiston.
It was Eric’s grandparents’ farm.
“We’ve grown the farm to 3,500 areas — growing dryland wheat, canola, barley, garbanzo beans, black peas and 800 acres of hay,” Sheila said.
“We originally had cattle. We hadn’t planned to get into sheep, but a rancher owed us for hay and paid us with 50 sheep,” she said. “That was the start of our sheep operation and we sold the cows.”
They live on the edge of the prairie. Winchester was a timber town with a mill, harvesting yellow pine.
“We farm some cut-over timber soil and across the prairie,” she said.
They have three children.
“I stayed home until they were all in school, then for 7 years worked part-time at a ball-and-burlap nursery operation,” she said. “Eventually, I felt that if I was going to work that hard I might as well be doing that on our own operation, about the same time we took on that first group of sheep.”
The sheep enterprise has grown; some of the farm can be grazed more readily by sheep than cattle, and she also began to use the sheep to improve cropland. This has been a no-till farm for 30 years, which improved microbe levels in the soil. Sheep grazing across the fields also helps keep the soil healthier and reduces weeds.
“Sheep can make more money than cattle; you can run 7 ewes for each cow. They also have multiple lambs,” Sheila said.
“I took over the sheep and made it my own enterprise, because it was easier for me to handle sheep than cows,” she said. “Every year I nearly doubled the flock, then purchased another group of sheep last June.”
In March she had 650 ewes that lambed out 950 lambs.
“We do a lot of cover cropping and rotational grazing, and it was taking me a lot of time to put up electric fence. I realized that if I was going to grow the flock larger I needed a herder,” Sheila said. “I hired a gentleman from Peru, on the H-2A program, and he arrived in August. He took down all my electric fence and started moving the flock around the farm.”
She is grazing 1,400 head for the summer.
“We run them here until October — grazing all our property. Then we wean and market lambs. In mid-October we take the ewes to the Columbia Basin in Washington and graze grass seed fields until February,” Sheila said.
The growers want their fields grazed after harvesting seed, to keep the canopy down, to eliminate fungus and allow sunlight into the root crown so it goes into seed production.
The sheep are sheared in late February. In years past Sheila brought the sheep back to Idaho and managed the lambing operation from home, starting the first of March.
“But this year my herder and I took the sheep to a desolate area near Touchet, Washington — on wheat stubble — to lamb. There was a small barn, and clean ground. Weather was fabulous and lambing went well,” she said.
“My husband was getting equipment ready for farming, and brought me loads of hay now and then, but we were each doing our own job,” she explained.
“We plan to get certified organic to grow organic wheat and barley and use sheep on those crops to clean up the ground and change the soil profiles,” she said.
This year will be her largest lamb crop, but markets may be a challenge.
“I was planning on doing an online video sale to presell my lambs for September-October delivery, but I don’t know how it will work this year. In the past I sold lambs to buyers for big feedlots. One year I sold lambs to an ethnic market in Southern California. I also sell some butcher lambs locally.”
She hopes to do more selling direct. Many people are interested in knowing where their food comes from.
“Five years ago I would not have considered direct marketing or selling my product through social media but now there are more people who want to know the person who raised the meat, and how it was raised.
“Social media capabilities have grown, and so has our ability to ship anywhere. With the current pandemic, if a person can tap into that market, this is the time,” she said.
People can order what they want without having to leave their homes, and with some packing plants shut down there is a bottleneck in the supply chain. This situation may encourage producers to explore more options and get more diversity in marketing again.