When Johanne Cameron and Martin Brodeur-Choquette decided to start farming, they had a dream. But no land, buildings or equipment of their own.
“When we went to the bank, they laughed at us,” recalls Cameron, with laughter of her own.
“Not only were we starting from scratch, but also the land in our area is the most expensive in Québec. Back then it was $4,200 an acre and the person at the bank said we should move to another area. But we decided not to listen to him.”
Today, les Bergeries Marovine is one of the most progressive and successful sheep farms in the country, an accomplishment which saw Cameron and Brodeur-Choquette named 2012 national co-winners of the Outstanding Young Farmers award. Their 650-ewe flock is top of class in fertility (more than 90% are successfully bred each cycle), productivity (1.1 lambs per ewe above the provincial average), and genetics. They own two barns (and rent another), and have 225 acres (40% of which is owned) of prime farmland in the St-Charles-sur-Richelieu area northeast of Montréal – where, by the way, prices have more than doubled since that memorable trip to the bank in 2004.
So how have they done it?
“I think passion is the word for both of us,” says Cameron. “But it is also true that Martin has his strengths and I have mine.”
Combining those strengths would prove critical for two people born a generation too late to inherit a working farm.
“I grew up next to my grandfather’s farm, but he sold his dairy cattle the year I was born,” says Cameron, 35. “He kept a few beef cows and sheep, and growing up, I was always in the barn. He sold the flock when I was in university, and I was really disappointed.”
But not deterred. While earning her Master’s in sheep production, Cameron started her own flock, building it up to 25 head, including a supreme champion and several grand champions.
Brodeur-Choquette, 29, was on a similar path but his focus was on building the size of his flock. He lived next to his grandmother’s farm, but the dairy herd and land was sold before he was born, and the barn lay empty. He, too, loved being with animals, so as a teen he worked on a neighbour’s dairy farm and on his uncle’s veal operation.
“Martin’s dream was to have his own land and his own farm,” says Cameron. “He was told by other farmers that he should look to the animals to pay for the land, not crops. Now it is different, but that was his idea when he was growing up.”
Brodeur-Choquette bought his first pair of sheep at age 15 and by the time he graduated from college at age 20, his flock numbered 350.
“He had to work very hard – he had the sheep but no machinery,” says Cameron. “So for example, because he had no tractor, he would have to remove the manure from the barn with a garden fork.”
Hard work would be a constant, particularly in the early days of the couple’s farming career. After earning her graduate degree, Cameron worked for le Centre d’expertise en Production Ovine du Québec (Centre of expertise in sheep production) and met Brodeur-Choquette during her field work. At one point, their flock was dispersed on rented land or barns on five separate farms. With Cameron’s office more than 300 kilometres away, it meant she was only home on weekends.
But there was more than an incredible work ethic and great passion at play. The couple knew their chances of success were directly related to their profit margins. Being average would not be good enough. They also knew they had complementary skills and expertise, and if they combined them in the right way, they would be able to greatly increase profits.
“Martin is the businessman,” says Cameron. “When you realize what that involves, you understand what a big word that is. He is always realistic and he makes budgets all the time. But when he sees an opportunity, he has no fear about making an investment and taking a calculated risk.
“On my side, it’s the genetics as well as the production and feeding of the flock. I know the genetics that we want and I have looked across Canada and the United States, and even around the world.”
The watershed moment for the couple would come in the late winter of 2007, three years after they had begun farming together. They had struck a rent-to-own agreement with a local farmer and fixed up his old dairy barn. The latter was fairly costly because the couple uses the photoperiod system for breeding sheep, which involves using artificial lighting in order to breed ewes throughout the year. (Producers who can supply lambs throughout the year receive a higher price per animal.)
Things were going well but the two farmers were financially stretched when a golden opportunity suddenly popped up one winter day in February 2007.
“That was when I found the genetics I was looking for,” says Cameron. “I heard that a flock of 116 Romanov ewes in Alberta had come up for sale. We knew they would be sold very quickly and so we only took a day to decide to purchase them, even though our barns were full and we had no place to put them.
“We went out to buy them and on the plane, we did the calculations on the productivity of these ewes and decided what we would need when we rented a barn and then what sort of barn we would need to buy.”
It was a complex set of calculations. Unlike cows and pigs, sheep are seasonal breeders and are most fertile when the days are shortest. The photoperiod system (which requires a barn dedicated to breeding) is used to get around that, but it’s not foolproof. The couple wanted to push their fertility rate above the 90-per-cent mark and the Romanovs, with their high ‘out-of-season breeding ability’ would help them achieve that. Romanov ewes also have a higher number of lambs and can be bred more often. Cameron had to estimate all of these things and then Brodeur-Choquette had to take her numbers and figure out costs for additional barn capacity, increased feed requirements, and related costs; and analyze their cash-flow requirements.
“I understand the genetics very well and I could calculate what we could expect in terms of productivity,” says Cameron. “But I could never do a budget like Martin does. You can have a higher production rate, but it may not necessarily be the most cost-effective. By working together, we were able to find the right point – the optimal production rate with the highest profitability.”
The bold move paid off and the addition of the 30 purebred Romanov ewes allowed the couple “to completely change the way we produce,” says Cameron. Today les Bergeries Marovine produces 1,300 to 1,500 lambs annually. Most are sold through the provincial sheep marketing agency, but the couple also sells purebred and hybrid breeding stock. They are now buying top-quality semen from abroad to improve the genetics of their flock, which they plan to increase to 800 ewes in the next year.
As always, it will be a team effort.
“If we were on our own, I don’t think we could have done what we have,” says Cameron. “But together, we have done a lot.”