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Rocky View County wool farm Canada's first to get animal welfare certification

Life is good at Providence Lane Homestead.

Life is good at Providence Lane Homestead, a wool and fibre farm in Rocky View County.

So good, in fact, that the sheep and alpacas fibre farm, about 20 minutes northwest of Cochrane, is the only one of its kind in Canada to receive the most rigorous certification a farm can strive for in terms of animal welfare standards and environmental sustainability.

Tara Klager, who not only owns but lives and breathes her work on the farm, said she was thrilled to learn in November that A Greener World (AGW) was awarding the homestead with their Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) certification, about eight months after she applied for the designation.

The process included phone interviews, a 50-page survey of long-form answers, acquiring a letter of recommendation from a veterinarian, as well as a visit from an AGW surveyor, among other things.

"It was a big deal," Klager explained, exemplifying how she jumped for joy the moment she heard.

"Especially because the whole thing was actually born out of a very negative emotional experience."

After being left scarred by a visit to another farm a few years ago, which ended with a report to the SPCA, Klager and her husband Bob left determined to ensure their animals and clientele would never experience what they witnessed that day at their own farm.

"Every once in a while you have these folks who really shouldn't be in farming," Klager said. "And we get as upset about that as the public does because we don't want that representation out there. It's so far from what 95 per cent of us are involved in." 

Klager said she started the research process in 2018 to find a certification that would "tick all the boxes" regarding quality of care and the values they wanted to uphold for themselves as well as their animals, and for the customers who purchase wool and woolen goods harvested and fashioned on the farm. 

"I wanted to find a process and a certification that I could have faith in," she said. "It was going to be more than a rubber stamp, it had to be something meaningful."

AGW, a non-profit organization based out of the United States, turned out to be the beacon to answer that call.

However, the organization only provides accreditation for its AWA certification for species being farmed in their native habitat, which excludes Providence Lane's five Peruvian alpacas, but still allowed for the 18 cotswold and border leicester sheep, which are technically species native to the United Kingdom. 

Offering accreditation across the globe, AGW serves to promote and support farming models to the public. It also provides practical guidance on achieving sustainable farming systems to farmers and ranchers guided by a key, ever-evolving mission to educate consumers, establish and promote sustainable farm practices and trusted certifications, and support independent farmers committed to sustainable livestock production.

"It had to be hands on," said Klager of the certification she sought. "It had to have a lot of accountability, it had to have support because I'm still learning and it had to be applicable to our jurisdiction or something that would be recognized in Canada."

Klager added that it also had to have some flexibility because while they currently only harvest the wool from their sheep and alpaca and do not slaughter any animals, it had to be an option they could look at down the road.

"I don't think that's something I want to do," she said while giving one of the sheep a scratch. "But if."

All of the animals at Providence Lane Homestead, including the 20 or so odd chickens, have names, according to Klager.

"Some of the chickens look very similar so sometimes they just get called 'chicken,'" she admitted with a laugh.

Recent origins

Klager and her husband started the farm in 2015 with four border leicester sheep, eventually growing their "flerd," as she lovingly calls them, to also include cotswold sheep and alpaca once she became more confident in her abilities as a shepherd. 

Many of the 18 animals have been bred and birthed at the farm over the years, including Sundae the alpaca, while others arrived there.

Their breeding pen was reconstructed on Nov. 20, according to Klager, who said they are hopeful for mid-April babies this year.

The farm's breeding program was just one of the criteria AGW reviewed, and will continue to review year-over-year, while considering their qualifications for the AWA certification, which requires annual on-site audits.

"From the time the animal arrives on the farm to when it potentially leaves, they want to know everything and you go through this incredibly detailed process to give them as much information as you possibly can and they'll send someone to the farm," Klager explained. "It's a really rigorous program."

In the event of a natural disaster, AGW expects accredited AWA farms to have a thorough emergency escape plan for the animals in their care.

While it's not expected that every possible natural disaster has a plan in place, it is mandatory for events that are more likely to occur in the farm or ranch's region. In Providence Lane Homestead's case for example, they had to create and present an emergency evacuation plan in the event of a wildfire given their location, which is surrounded by prairie and trees.

The report on AGW's standards for sheep alone is 28 pages long and covers everything from the weaning of lambs, castration, ownership and handling, and wool shearing - the homestead's bread and butter.

All of the sheep and alpaca are shorn once a year around April or May, and the Klagers sell the fibre to hand spinners who will often come out and pick the fibre right off the animal on shearing day. 

"Sometimes our fleeces are sold a year in advance. [It] depends on our clientele," Klager said. "And then it gets turned into all kinds of amazing things."

The texture of the wool varies widely across different sheep, she added, and especially between the two species inhabiting the homestead, providing many different uses from doll hair to quilts, or being turned into a weaving through the process of hand spinning.

"Wool is one of the most incredible, versatile materials and it used to be something that everybody understood," said Klager. "Now we've gotten so used to synthetics that people don't always understand the ins and outs anymore, but there is always a use for wool. Always."

While Providence Lane Homestead is the only fibre farm in Canada to receive the AWA accreditation, Klager said there are 15 others across Alberta that have received the certification through the farming of other livestock, such as beef and cattle.

"What I hope people think of when they come out to the farm, and they know that we're Animal Welfare Approved, is that we are doing what we can to ensure that this fundamental resource, and these incredible animals are safeguarded and husbanded, and loved and cared for, and provided for, so that they never have to feel bad, or they never have to worry that the fibre they're using came from an animal who suffered first," Klager explained. 

"That's just not the case here."

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