By Connor Lynch
DALKEITH — Sheep farmer Reto Gantenbein would rather be milking cows than doing anything else. The 43-year-old, who has a flock of 150 ewes northeast of Alexandria, was born on a dairy farm in Switzerland. He immigrated to Canada at age 22 and began working on dairy farms with hopes of owning his own operation. He was a partner in a dairy farm for seven years.
That is until last September when the operation fell out from under him. Gantenbein farmed with two area farmers who were looking to retire and they were willing to sell him the whole operation. It was a dream coming true until he thought it through.
He considered a loan but with little equity in the farm, he decided it was too risky to hold debt for the rest of his life, especially when the future looked so uncertain.
“I think the quota system is a good system but not for the young guy to start, for the old guy to retire,” he said.
The pending Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement also made Gantenbein a bit nervous about the future of milk quota. “Makes it not very appetizing to spend almost $2 million in quota.”
Land prices didn’t help either, which Gantenbein said in his area nearly tripled in seven years. “If you need to buy for fair market value, it’s a no-brainer. You’re not going to start dairy farming.”
Gantenbein faced years of obstacles. He’d left his family farm in Switzerland because it was too small to provide work for a second family and his father had no intentions of retiring any time soon. When Gantenbein arrived in Ontario, he worked part-time jobs on dairy farms doing “whatever chores came by.”
He and his partner talked about going back to Switzerland five years ago, when his father retired, but they had made a life for themselves here. They have three children.
So the latest decision to pass on operating a dairy farm was hard. It “was tough for a few months, but life moves on. I don’t think any dairy farmer that loves his cows is going to go out easy.”
Fortunately, Gantenbein had a fallback position that had originally started as a hobby; a small flock of 50 ewes that he’d started gathering a few years before the dairy operation was sold.
That flock tripled last fall, and he’s hoping to double it again by next year.
He counted himself fortunate that he not only had a fallback but that he’d had some experience with sheep before they became his livelihood.
“There’s a lot to know about it. I wouldn’t recommend getting 200 sheep and trying it out.”
The former dairy producer missed the reliability of a monthly quota cheque. But any kind of farmer is going to have to adapt if they’re getting into sheep, he said.
Sheep need protection from predators and Gantenbein relies on a couple of llamas and an electric fence around his pasture to keep his flock safe. He hasn’t had any real problems in the past, but also said that there’s no bush near his pasture. “If you have a bush close it’d be worse.”
Sheep are also particular about their food. “Sheep demand high quality grain. They’re very susceptible to mould and things like that.”
But he’s committed to sheep. He plans on growing only forage on his 100 acres, and he’s building two new barns, one for his sheep and one for their food. “Sheep are the long-term plan.
“I still miss the cows, I love the cows. I still have one that’s my pet. I miss it but it was just too expensive.”