At Home on the Farm

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Oct 20, 2011 6:08 PM
Howard Morry cradles one of his lambs on his farm in Kilbride, Newfoundland.

By Chris Hodder

In the useful-looking kitchen of an old farmhouse, sitting across the table with his back to the sunshine that laboured through the dingy window pane is a burly man. His stature is imposing and rugged, un-Irish in spite of his Southern Shore roots.

At 77, Howard Morry's hands and arms still look strong as he folds and unfolds them in conversation, rising once in awhile to comb his long, straight grey hair back from his forehead.

His hearing isn't what it used to be and his voice elicits an almost permanent strain from having to constantly raise it in conversation. But this doesn't mask the straight-forward and friendly way he talks.

"I was seven years old when I got my first sheep, for passing Grade one," says Morry, knowing I wanted the story from the beginning. "My father gave it to me. They were worth about five dollars each then."

That means he's been farming sheep for the better part of 70 years.

As if to check his own accuracy, he quickly explains that there was a four-year period in the 1950s when he moved to Toronto to work and had to give up his flock. Then again for a couple of years when he attended agricultural college in Truro, Nova Scotia.

After college, Howard landed a job with the provincial government as a technologist in the entomology department of the research station where he worked for 35 years until he retired in 1990. During that time, his sheep farming was a sideline.

Howard and an orphaned lamb

"I used this (sheep farming) to educate my kids; buy cars for them," Howard explains. "They all came out of university and trade school and neither one owed a nickel. So they (the sheep) have been a good help to me all my life - not a living in it, but a very good sideline."

For the past 54 years, Howard has been raising sheep on his property in Kilbride, a quaint two-story homestead sharing space with an antique barn, grey fences mechanical farm equipment, a plain pick-up truck, all identified by a simple roadside sign, "Morry's Sheep Farm." He says, as far as he knows, he was the first sheep farmer in Kilbride.

A family affair
He'd grown up in Ferryland on the Avalon Peninsula's southern shore. His father was a fisherman and subsistence farmer who raised animals for food. Along the way, he shared his techniques for caring for farm animals with his son. Howard was one of nine children and the only one who carried on farming after leaving home.

"My grandfather was a farmer, too. He was at it in kind of a big way then," says Howard. "He had all kinds of horse-drawn machinery and he used to use the island in Ferryland to pasture his sheep - my father used it, I'm using it and my boys are using it. There's been sheep on that island off and on for hundreds of years."

Howard's mother, a war bride from Scotland, came from a family of sheep farmers. Her father was a lawyer, but her uncles raised sheep in the mountains of the Highlands. "She could pull the lambs out of sheep when they got in trouble," he remarks.

Howard's wife Mary has been involved in the farm work ever since they got together. "She'd live and die in the garden. And it's good for you, too," he quips. "She's 81 now. She grew up in Outer Cove. She worked in an office in town and got in tow with me and came in here (Kilbride). She spent the first couple winters in the woods cutting wood with me. She never, never ever complained. We had eleven children. Eight survived. We lost one son 11 years ago to cancer."

Howard is happy that his lifetime of learning won't be for naught. His two sons and his son-in-law are already seasoned sheep farmers. They each have their own flocks but they all work together to make sure the trade grows and that sheep farmers all over the province have every advantage.

Managing the flock
Howard has been involved with the Sheep Producers Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (SPANL) since its inception more than two decades ago. He is currently the president. He says membership drifts up and down depending on the "sheep business" but has been as high as 50. The SPANL was started by Joey Smallwood's granddaughter, Dale Russell Fitzpatrick, in Gander about 21 years ago.

Howard recalls reading that during the depression years there were 125,000 breeding sheep in Newfoundland. "Those were the days when people needed them to eat and wool for their clothes, but as times got better and money got a little plentier and the town council came in, they didn't want animals roaming the roads, so people who had them had to confine them, and people only had postage stamp-sized farms so they couldn't afford to cut the hay and keep going so they got out of it (sheep farming)." About 20 years ago, there were about 10,000 in the province but Howard says the rapidly expanding coyote population forced many people out of the business. "We're up to about 4,000 (sheep) again now and most of them are on the Avalon."

Part of Howard's learning by trial and error relates to developing a breed of sheep that were strong enough to not only withstand the Newfoundland weather, but a breed that would actually prosper in it. His current flock of 50 breeders are what he calls mongrels.

Some of Howard's flock

"I have some good blood in my sheep now. There's a lot of Newfoundland in them plus everything, but they're the best," he explains. "I've tried purebreds but they didn't work out too good. They couldn't take it on the chin like the mixed up ones. They're not hardy. They're alright if you hand feed them and pamper them. The ones I've got are out all winter. The only time I put them in is when the snow goes over the fences, I'm afraid they'll roam."

Howard and the other sheep farmers in his area bring their sheep to the island around May 24 each year and leave them there to pasture until about mid-November when the sheep are returned to their home farms for the winter.

Farm hands
At home, the sheep roam the fenced-in land, and Howard tends them daily, but not without help. He has enlisted the aid of two llamas and a guard dog - three animals he is more than willing to call workmates. The llamas are large and daunting to predators like dogs and coyotes. But more than that, they instinctively govern the sheep. In cases where coyotes had been approaching the flock a llama has been seen herding the sheep into one corner of the field and standing between them and the potential danger.

Howard credits his llamas for reducing the number of sheep lost to predators. And while roaming dogs have also been a known predator for decades, Howard has a dog of his own that guards his flock.

"In 1959, I had a flock in Bay Bulls 26 out of 30 sheep were killed by a big pack of dogs. The four that were left, I looked at them and said, 'Am I going to stay at this or what?' And I said, 'I'm not giving in to the dogs and that's it.' So I started with four and worked my way up again."

Howard's pride in his working dog is obvious as he pushes himself up from the kitchen table and asks if I want to meet her.

"She" is a four-year-old Maremma sheepdog named Queen. Maremmas are livestock guardian dogs indigenous to central Italy and have been used by Italian shepherds to guard sheep from wolves. Queen came to Howard from Cape Breton.

Queen gets a well-deserved scratch behind the ears.

As we walk the dozen paces from his back door to the barn Howard seems to come even more alive. The barn door is open and as we approach, two small cats who had been lazing in the afternoon sun stir and slink away, pausing to look back at us a time or two. "They're not house cats. They're working cats," Howard says. "They keep the mice away."

As we step inside, a llama raises its head, a strand of hay sticking out if its mouth like a toothpick. She looked as out of place as a fisherman in the dessert. Around her legs in the pen were several adult sheep and a couple of lambs. They are there to keep the llama company while she's on vacation. Her work won't begin again until the flock returns from the island.

Getting down to business
A sharp, pleading whine draws our attention away from the llama as Queen pulls herself up to the top of the pen for a look. Howard reaches out and rubs her ears and talks to her as if I'm not there. Interestingly, Queen has the same hardy look about her as Howard and is just as comfortable around the sheep as he is.

From the dark recess of the barn comes a tiny bleat. Howard steps up to the pen and swings his legs in over. He reaches down like a father and scoops up a tiny lamb. "She's an orphan," he says. "Her mother died and I don't know what happened."

From where he stands at the barn door with the tiny, wooly animal in his arms, the "lab" is visible - a tiny, white government-looking building where lambs become sustenance.

As the subject is broached, it is the first time I see discomfort on Howard's face.

Killing lambs is something Howard doesn't like talking about, even after all these years in the business. "I don't like doing it. But, sure I've got to do it. What are you going to do, keep 'em all?

Lamb meat is worth money now Howard says, "Over $5 per pound."

Restaurants and independent grocery stores are his main markets. "People are more fond of it than ever. Lamb, they go mad for it," he says. "Without any exaggeration I could sell 300 lambs a year. If I was pushing it and advertising it would be more, but I can't butcher what I haven't got." He points out that his lambs are "naturally raised" meaning they roam free until they are of market size. They reach market size in about five months.

The breeding sheep need to be sheared at least once a year but the wool is not fetching much - usually between 50 cents and a dollar per pound.

Howard explains that sheep tend to lose their usefulness as breeders between 7-10 years of age. His sheep generally lamb once a year and the lambs are castrated to prevent accidental breeding.

The next generation
Howard had open-heart surgery last year, and these days his knees are trying to tell him to ease up on the hard work, but his passion for the trade keeps him going morning after morning.

He says you don't become a sheep farmer in Newfoundland for the money. You do it because you enjoy the work and you like sheep. "I likes to be at it. I'd go cracked in the house. I'd go mad. The wintertime here, boy, I can't stand it, the long nights and the short days. I dread for it to come."

Howard is hopeful about the future of sheep farming in the province given the greater number of younger people taking an interest in it. Aside from his own family and those around his area, he's met and helped a young woman on the Northern Peninsula who he says is becoming a very good shepherdess.

Jennifer Decker runs Wild Woods Farm in Roddickton, which began as a hobby farm with chickens, turkeys, ducks, and peacocks. The hobby has since turned into an 18-acre sheep operation and five acres of pasture.

Jennifer is not shy about crediting much of her success to the willingness of veteran farmers like Howard to share their knowledge.

"We never would have met but for our love of sheep," Jennifer says of Howard. "I wanted to let him know some of us younger folks 'get it' and I appreciate his encouragement and passion for the sheep industry in our province and our history here." Click here to read a poem that Jennifer wrote and dedicated to Howard, her mentor.)

Jennifer says whether he realizes it or not, Howard is well-known and loved and respected in the agriculture circles - a point proven when he was inducted into the Agriculture Hall of Fame in Atlantic Canada in 2005. "He's endeared by so many of us; a treasure now. His words are often colourful, like he came out of an old movie of hard times," she remarks. "I didn't think anyone took sheep out to the islands anymore, till I met Howard. I knew without words when I met our aged sheep president that we both saw something in each other we liked as sheep producers. I saw a glimpse of the past and he saw a glimpse of the future."

As the interview slowly fades into simple, general conversation about life and work I begin to see Howard Morry as far more than an interesting subject. He reveals himself as a piece of living history. The tangents of the conversation protrude into tales from his childhood, of Germans stealing cows from his community during the war; of his father caribou hunting after coming home from the war; of his mother growing savoury and selling it to the upper class in St. John's.

I tried half-heartedly several times to pull the conversation shut while turning towards my car in the driveway, but one more story would spring up like a fresh flower.

"It's an interesting job. I love being at it," he says as if putting the final nail in a beautiful piece of furniture. "I'll be at it as long as I'm able to be around."

Want to hear Howard Morry tell part of his story in his own colourful terms? Listen in here: