Shepherding new leaders in Ontario’s sheep industry

What began as a grassroots education program for Ontario lamb producers quickly transformed into leadership development for the future of Ontario’s sheep industry. And the future is looking good, according to Ontario Sheep Farmer's General Manager, Jennifer MacTavish.

The 18-month Master Shepherd Education Program began as a classroom and industry tour training model for sheep farmers. This unique, hands-on program set out to provide professional development training and business planning, giving producers the tools and knowledge they need to expand their flocks, improve flock health and reduce production costs. It quickly spanned into solid friendships, an organic support network and the development of lasting leadership qualities.

“We’re seeing a new injection of energy into Ontario’s sheep industry,” says MacTavish. “This is a direct result of the Master Shepherd Program. We’ve seen participants take on new leadership positions, diversify their sheep farms and expand their production. These farmers are shaping the future of our industry and leading by example.”

The program was originally created to support lamb farmers who had been farming for roughly three to five years and were interested in expanding their operations or seeking professional development opportunities. Ontario Sheep Farmers first ran a similar program in the 1990s and some of the original graduates became predominant leaders in the sheep industry. The Master Shepherd Program ran through 2014 and 2015. “Farmers who have been in business for three to five years don’t have the same support system that new entrants have access to. That’s why we targeted the program to this group in an effort to provide the latest production training, business planning and connect them with farmers in similar situations,” says MacTavish.

The program included industry tours and classroom modules on every aspect of lamb production including biosecurity, health, handling, reproduction, nutrition and genetics. Participants were required to present a business plan and some have already implemented changes to their farms as a result of the program.

 “The program dialed me in to all the potential issues and opportunities for improvements in our farm and overall business,” says Master Shepherd Program participant Sandi Brock. The program accommodated 22 participants per module and 18 farmers completed the full program and business plan requirement.

MacTavish says participants continue to be engaged in industry events and issues as a result of their new network and program completion.

 “The Master Shepherd Program has created a lot of excitement in Ontario’s sheep industry, and it’s rewarding to see so many young farmers integrating the program into their own farm operations and becoming the next generation of industry leaders,” says MacTavish.

Industry succession wasn’t something MacTavish and her team considered when they began planning the program. But it’s become clear that the program’s influence will be reflected in participants staying in business, growing their farms and engaging more in the Ontario sheep industry overall.

Interested farmers are inquiring about the next program, and planning is underway for the next Master Shepherd Program that is expected to launch in 2018.

The Master Shepherd Program was awarded the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence. The project was funded in part through Growing Forward 2 (GF2), a federal-provincial-territorial initiative. The Agricultural Adaptation Council assists in the delivery of GF2 in Ontario.