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Agritourism sustains central Alberta sheep farm

Susan de Rosemond had three strikes against her when she decided to become a sheep farmer in the late 1970s.

First, she was an immigrant. Second, she was a woman.

And the killing blow? She wanted to be a sheep farmer in beef country.

“When I went to apply for my mortgage, the bank managers would say, ‘Lady, this is cattle country, you know,’” said de Rosemond, who operates PaSu Farm with husband Patrick.

“But the more they said no, the more I said yes.”

The couple emigrated from South Africa to Carstairs in 1977, where they lived for a couple of years before deciding to try their hand at farming. With hindsight, they might have chosen horticulture (“it’s far easier than livestock”) but de Rosemond liked the idea of livestock on the land.

However, she thought cows were too big and pigs too scary. Sheep, she figured, she could handle.

De Rosemond took a three-month sheep-handling course and bought some “old, broken down” Cheviots from a neighbour — a diversion from traditional Suffolk sheep, the ‘in’ breed of the time.

“If you’re at PaSu Farm, you’re a survivor. You want to get fancy, go to another farm,” she said.

De Rosemond finally found a banker who took her seriously, and just like that, PaSu Farm was born — “with 300 sheep, three kids, mortgaged to the hilt.”

The couple admits they had a rather romantic view of farming when starting out, and quickly got a wake-up call.

“Everybody told us we were crazy. I must admit that, at that time, it was nothing short of insanity,” said de Rosemond. “But it’s amazing what you can do when your back is to the wall.”

Patrick worked an off-farm job in Calgary, helping sustain the operation in the early years. They supplemented their income by selling wool products, sheepskins, and moccasins at craft shows and farmers’ markets. Then in 1992, the couple built a tour facility for visitors from the city who wanted to experience life on a sheep farm. And pretty soon, these visitors wanted to experience more of a getaway in the countryside.

So the de Rosemonds adjusted their course again, turning their facility into a restaurant and shop.

“We’ve been very blessed with things falling into place — not always with ease, but the next step was always in front of us,” said de Rosemond.

Today, the couple only has 30 sheep (their herd was decimated last year in coyote attacks), but their tourism business keeps them plenty busy. The gift shop stocks wool products from all over the world, preserves made from their own garden, and skin-care products made on farm from sheep lanolin (or wool wax). Likewise, their restaurant serves fresh, locally produced meals (specializing in lamb, of course).

And as their tourism business has grown, they’ve pulled back some from the hands-on work of farming.

“We’re at the stage where we don’t want to be doing this much work,” said de Rosemond, adding their son will be taking over part of the sheep operation. “What we produce on the farm is minute. We produce very little.”

Given that, their diversification into agritourism wasn’t just good business savvy — it was “survival.”

“We couldn’t have survived on the sheep,” said de Rosemond. “It just wasn’t sustainable.”

But the operation is thriving as a shopping and dining destination, helped by its location in rolling farmland at the foot of the Canadian Rockies.

“PaSu Farm has gone on to develop a place that is needed in today’s society. Calgary is very go, go, go. Sometimes we can’t even catch our breath. I think it’s really important that there’s a peaceful place where people can come and breathe.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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