News

Carrie Woolley recipient of 2017 Premier’s Award

Jacob Robinson

By Jacob Robinson, Simcoe Reformer

Norfolk sheep farmer Carrie Woolley kneels alongside three of her several dogs that protect the sheep as they graze. Woolley was recently named one of 50 Ontario recipients of the 2017 Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence. JACOB ROBINSON/Simcoe Reformer

Norfolk sheep farmer Carrie Woolley kneels alongside three of her several dogs that protect the sheep as they graze. Woolley was recently named one of 50 Ontario recipients of the 2017 Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence. JACOB ROBINSON/Simcoe Reformer

SIMCOE  - 

It’s quite a sight – hundreds of sheep grazing peacefully on the snow-covered fields of Norfolk County.

And while allowing livestock to remain outdoors year-round might be new to some, it’s become commonplace at the Schuyler Farms operation just east of Simcoe in the past 24 months.

“At first I think it was a bit of a shock to people – people weren’t used to seeing livestock outside in the wintertime,” said sheep farmer Carrie Woolley.

“Now I think people enjoy seeing the sheep out there and also the local businesses that are using our lamb and selling it at their restaurants. The feedback has been really great.”

People outside of Norfolk County have taken notice as well. Woolley was recently named one of 50 Ontario recipients of the 2017 Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence. The honour is bestowed upon farmers and businesses providing new elements to the province’s agri-food industry, creating jobs or building economic growth.

“Year after year, these awards showcase outstanding individuals across the province whose innovative ideas are helping grow Ontario’s agri-food sector for today and tomorrow,” Ontario’s minister of agriculture, food and rural affairs Jeff Leal said in a news release. “I’d like to congratulate this year’s recipients and thank them for their commitment to strengthening Ontario’s world-class agri-food sector and positioning our province for continued economic growth.”

Since 2007, the program has received more than 1,700 nominations and distributed over $4 million to the 525 award winners.

“It was kind of surprising and really nice to get the recognition,” Woolley said. “The general idea of it is nice – that they’re helping the different businesses and farm ventures, they’re recognizing them and giving them a little bit of help. It’s nice acknowledgement from the government that you’re doing things right.”

Currently, the Schuyler operation has about 500 breeding ewes that graze among cherry and apple orchards (and occasionally cover crop fields of turnips, oats, and peas) located on their property. The sheep not only improve the health of the soil, but save the farm more than $30,000 a year in grass-cutting costs.

“It’s definitely unique to Canada and Ontario ... we were having a hard time finding information about other places in North America that do it,” Woolley explained. “I think there is a bit of it happening in the southern U.S. (but) it’s pretty common practice in New Zealand for vineyards and orchards.”

Woolley’s brother-in-law, Ryan Schuyler, nominated her for the award two years ago when they first got into the sheep business and again in 2017. The major difference between now and then came in the branding of the product and promoting it in the local area.

“Not only are we producing lamb this way, but we’re also branding it and doing the marketing to offer it to customers so they know exactly where the food came from,” Woolley said.

“That whole movement towards local food is a big thing.”

Woolley admits that things aren’t entirely rosy in the province’s food production sector, and being part of the solution is something Schuyler Farms takes great pride in.

“It scares me to see some of the food processing plants getting shut down across Ontario because if we’re shutting those down we’re not processing our own food and we’re buying it from somewhere else, some other country,” she said. “Food safety is a big deal, so it’s nice to see processors getting recognition and getting help in running their businesses and expanding so we can keep food safety as a priority.”

jrobinson@postmedia.com