NORTH RIVER - Local farmers Ruth and her mother Greta Mathewson have been named as one of three finalists for this year's Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture's farm environmental stewardship award.
The award recognizes producers who make land, water and habitat stewardship a significant part of their farm operations.
The Mathewsons have operated Upperbrook Farm, a 26-hectare piece of land in North River, for nearly 40 years. The farm primarily produces North Country Cheviot sheep breeding stock and wool products but also yields a small amount of lamb and beef and Christmas trees from a two-acre lot.
With rocky, rugged fields, Upperbrook Farm relies heavily on pasture and forage to feed their 60 ewes, lambs and seven beef cattle.
The Mathewsons are taking advantage of Nova Scotia's climate and terrain to implement a grass-based production system for their sheep. The grass-fed system is good for the sheep and even better for the environment.
Forages conserve soil by decreasing erosion and by increasing infiltration, soil structure, soil organic matter and soil microbial activity. Continuous growth of grass and legumes will also protect soil from the forces of water and wind. Furthermore, forages generally have low nutrient requirements and often include nitrogen fixing legumes which reduce the need for fertilizer.
Upperbrook Farm also has 260 acres of woodlot. The Mathewsons have done some selective cutting in the woodlot, based on their forestry plan developed by Nova Scotia Woodlot Owners and Operators Association. They are careful not to damage the areas beside brooks and streams; riparian areas significant for fish and wildlife habitat and watershed conservation.
They have also decided against clearcutting, but chose instead to allow the trees in parts of their woodlot to mature and die in order to rejuvenate the forest.
Like many small traditional farmers in the province, the Mathewsons keep their energy usage to a minimum and are always looking for ways to conserve energy. Animals are pastured from May to November, reducing the amount of forage needed to be harvested with equipment.
Upperbrook farm also has a woolen mill and a wool washer, which allows Greta and Ruth to make use of wool that would commonly be a waste product of lamb production. Instead, the wool is cleaned and crafted into comforters and other wool gift items.
"If you were to sell just the rough wool you would only get between 40 cents and a dollar per pound," Greta explained. "By making blankets we are creating a valuable product and diverting waste from the landfill."
But Ruth wants to take this even further. She estimates that half of the wool clippings in Nova Scotia are sent to the landfill. She partnered with the Agricultural Faculty of Dalhousie to investigate feasibility of using wool for insulation. Ruth has also partnered with the Atlantic Natural Fibre and Natural Dye Industry Association to look into the possibility of establishing an animal fibre industry.
The award will be announced during the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture annual banquet on Nov. 29 in Truro.