Sheila and Eric Hasselstrom have a dryland farm in north-central Idaho on the Camus Prairie near Winchester — 45 miles south of Lewiston. It was originally his grandparents’ farm.
“My husband has been farming here since he was in high school. We expanded the farm to 3,500 acres — growing dryland wheat, canola, barley, garbanzo beans, black peas, and 800 acres of hay,” she said.
Eric originally had cattle; his grandfather raised Herefords.
“About 12 years ago we were expanding our farm ground and our cattle numbers were down to 150 head. We hadn’t planned to get into sheep, but a rancher owed us money for hay and paid us with 50 sheep. That was the start of our sheep operation and we eventually sold the cows. Now the sheep are the only livestock on our farm,” Sheila said.
Their farm is on the edge of the prairie. Winchester was a timber town with a mill. “We farm a lot of cut-over timber land at Winchester and also farm across the prairie toward Nez Perce,” she said.
“We have three children and I stayed home on the farm as they were growing up. Once they were all in school, I worked a part-time job off the farm for seven years, working at a ball-and-burlap nursery operation near Craigmont. I worked hard at the nursery and felt that if I was going to work that hard I might as well be doing that on our own operation, so I quit my part-time job and helped my husband do the farming, about the same time we took on that first group of sheep,” she said.
The sheep enterprise has grown; there is a lot of area on this farm that can be grazed more readily by sheep than cattle.
“We began to use the sheep to improve our cropland. This year, in 2021, we are using the sheep as fire mitigation in places that have not been grazed before,” she said.
This has always been a no-till farm, for the past 30 years. Most of the fields are no-till and low disturbance, which has improved the microbe levels in the soil. The sheep grazing across all the fields helps keep the soil healthier and controls the weeds. There are also several hundred acres of pasture ground (too rough for growing crops) that the sheep can graze and reduce the brush and weeds.
“Sheep can possibly make more money than cattle; you can run seven ewes for each cow. They also have multiple lambs. I took over the sheep as my own enterprise, because it was easier for me to handle sheep than cows. I started expanding the sheep numbers, and every year I nearly doubled the flock. In 2019 I purchased another group of sheep and ran them all summer and through the winter. When I lambed in March of 2020 I had 650 ewes that lambed out 950 lambs,” she said.
“This year, in 2021, I ran 700 head, lambing 600 of them with a crop of 850 lambs. I’ve already marketed those lambs through Superior for October delivery. The market prices are outstanding this year,” Sheila said.
She said the farm grows a lot of cover crops and has a lot of ground that’s rotationally grazed by the sheep.
“In 2019 we put all the ewes and lambs out on 110 acres of different cover crops — mixes of clovers, oats, black peas, barley, etc. As the herd was growing I was looking at how we were rotating them around the farm — and the time it was taking me to put up electric fence. I realized that if I was going to grow the flock larger I needed to get a herder, hiring an H-2A worker,” Sheila said.
“To support the H-2A worker I needed to increase numbers. I hired a gentleman from Peru, and he arrived in August 2019. He took down the electric fence and started moving the flock around the farm ‘on the free’ without having to worry about fences. He has been with us two years now.”
Right now, with ewes and lambs together, it’s about 1,400 head, grazing some timber ground.
“We run them on our place here in Idaho until about October — grazing all our property. Then we wean and market the lambs and in mid-October take the ewes to the Columbia Basin in Washington and graze some grass seed production fields. We graze there until February until the sheep are sheared. The grass seed growers want their fields grazed after harvesting the seed, and are very willing to work with us,” she said.
They want sheep grazing in the fall to keep the canopy down, to eliminate fungus and allow sunlight into the root crown so that it goes into seed production. The grazing animals are beneficial for this purpose.
“Most sheepmen live in the valley and run their sheep in the valley in winter and haul them to the mountains for summer. We live in the mountains and bring our sheep home in summer to use on our farm for soil health and cleaning up our weeds and brush; they are a multi-purpose crop,” she said.
She plans to get to about 800 head and keep the flock at that number.
“There are many additional challenges when growing larger. Sheep are labor intensive and must be handled a lot more than cattle. I think I’ll get to 800 head and see what the capacity is, on our farm — to graze all of our acreage. We need to figure out how we are going to do that, putting in cover crops,” she said.
“We want to figure out how to use sheep on those crops to clean up the ground. We are working at this, 100 acres at a time, learning how to use the sheep as a tool to change the soil profiles. This is why we got into sheep,” Sheila said.
Her grandparents Miles and Virginia Williams raised sheep in Oregon.
“I was quite young then, and by the time I knew and understood what grandpa was doing, he had decreased his flock and was only running 200 head. I spent quite a bit of time in my childhood out with my grandfather. After I got sheep again, it just fit,” she said.
Her dad and grandfather were farmers and Sheila feels that farmers and ranchers are eternal optimists.
“Every year I think I will do better next year. There is always next year and I’m going to get the current challenges taken care of and get on top of them and do better! That’s who I am,” she said.
Farm women are optimists, and always working at something.
“My aunt was telling me about my grandmother and said, ‘She was a woman of process,’ always in the process of doing something. She was in the process of growing a garden, then canning, and raising chickens and collecting eggs, and in the process of raising sheep and then in the process of lambing. Grandma was a process woman, and I realize that this describes every farm woman. We are always in the process of something! It may be raising kids, helping our husbands, or in the process of our own enterprises, growing something. There is always a process going on, from the little things to the big things. All farm women are process women, and the process is never complete! You are never quite finished!”
This year will be her largest lamb crop, and marketing them will also be a new experience.
“In the past I’ve sold lambs to some of the local buyers who buy lambs for the big feedlots. One year I sold lambs to an ethnic market in Southern California, 100 head at a time, and that was a good market. I’ve done it several different ways and I also sell about 10 to 15 butcher lambs here locally each year. The 2020 market was terrible, so I used 60 lambs this year to start breaking into the direct-to-consumer business, attending local farmers markets as an outlet,” she said.
“I’m looking toward doing a little more of that, learning how to sell direct to consumers, and I might be able to sell some of my crop that way,” she said.
There is a growing interest in buying meat directly from a producer; more and more people are interested in knowing where their food comes from and knowing the producer.
“This is something I’ve been watching, and it’s changing. Even as recently as six years ago I would not have considered doing direct marketing or selling my product through social media. I would have said this method would never be able to feed the U.S. but now there are more people who want to buy direct.”
They want to know the person who raised the meat, and know how it was raised.
She now has a website: WRF.farm (Winchester Ridge Farm). “Our social media capabilities have grown; we can reach out and touch all aspects of this country. Our ability to ship to many areas has opened that market. With the pandemic, if a person has the opportunity to tap into that market, this is the time,” she said.
People can order what they want without having to leave their homes.
This packer problems this past year encouraged producers to explore more options and get more diversity in marketing again.
“It also pushes consumers into looking at different ways to acquire their meat. I think people will start paying more attention to the label. We need mandatory country-of-origin labeling because people need to know where their food comes from,” she said.
Most people don’t want to buy meat from Brazil or Argentina or Australia or New Zealand.
“Most of the lamb purchased in the U.S. goes to restaurants for fine dining, and cruise ships. I didn’t realize how much went through these markets, and when all of those shut down, our U.S. lamb was not moving. But New Zealand continued to ship their regular amounts of lamb into the U.S. and filling up our freezers. All our storage was being filled by foreign meat, and that’s something that needs to be resolved,” she said.