Historically there were several sheep producer organizations in Ontario over the years, but the one that immediately preceded OSMA was the Ontario Sheep Association. Originally the province was divided into five zones, with two directors from each zone - one each elected from the purebred and commercial sectors. In the early 1980’s, restructuring took place, which divided the province into 11 districts with a director from each - the same structure still used by OSMA.
The OSA was a voluntary organization of 700-800 members. It was funded by a check-off through the sales barns, which was also voluntary - producers could request a refund of their check-off fees. Requested refunds were not large in total, probably less than 7%, but OSA members felt that they were being expected to fund projects for the benefit of all producers in the province while many were not contributing. Through the early 1980’s, this inequity, along with concerns about the marketing of lambs and market share relative to imports became of increasing importance. There was also increasing pressure for OSA to become involved in product promotion. As a result, at the annual meeting of the OSA held in November of 1983, a resolution was passed requesting the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Board to develop and implement a marketing plan for sheep.
In response to that resolution, the Minister of Agriculture appointed a commission of three sheep producers - Jack James, Walter Renwick and Garth Noecker to tour the province for producer input and put together the framework of a marketing plan. Their report to the Minister resulted in the implementation of OSMA with the marketing plan similar to that in place for pork. One of the options being considered was single desk marketing, and we were told by the Farm Products Marketing Board to include anything in the plan that we thought we might want. OSMA was officially put in place in September of 1985 without a producer vote - something which had happened only once before in the case of the Ontario Milk Marketing Board.
The formation of OSMA came as a part of the Red Meat Plan - a major initiative on the part of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture to bolster both the cattle and sheep industries. The Red Meat Plan for sheep included producer incentives for the SFIP and other programs, and major funding for the set-up of OSMA as well as grants for product promotion.
The Minister of Agriculture appointed the first board of directors of OSMA, although several members had been previously elected as directors of the Ontario Sheep Association. The original board was composed of 13 members - 11 district directors, and a chairman and vice-chairman appointed for three and two terms respectively. First board members were Jack James, chairman; Walter Renwick, vice-chairman; Rick Fuerth, District 1; Reg Martin, District 2; Harriet Boon, District 3; Amos Kitchen, District 4; Ralph Southward, District 5; Neil Metheral, District 6; Carolyn Hills, District 7; Robert Fluegel, District 8, Tom Redpath, District 9; Larry Buck, District 10, and Ron Wight, District 11. Appointed director terms expired over a three-year schedule, and were followed by elections by districts. Terms for the chairman and vice-chairman expired at the end of their first terms, and then reverted to elections from within the board.
The first office of the OSMA was at the Ontario Stockyards in Toronto. Staff consisted of the secretary-manager and a full-time office secretary (who in retrospect should have been designated as administrative assistant). There was also a part-time public relations director who served as secretary for Sheep Focus, and also edited Sheep News when it was begun in 1987. In 1990, when it became evident that the future of the stockyards in Toronto was in serious doubt, the OSMA office was moved to Dovercliffe Rd. in Guelph in space rented from the OCA.
Objectives of the Ontario Sheep Marketing Agency were concentrated in five major areas: To stimulate and expand the market for Ontario produced lamb and wool; to improve the efficiency of lamb and wool marketing; to improve production efficiency, product quality and continuity of supply; to provide liaison at all levels with farm organizations, producer organizations from other provinces, other members of the trade, consumers and government; and to maintain and expand communications with producers and producer organizations at all levels.
Early initiatives in the area of marketing included live lamb grading in co-operation with OMAF, electronic sales, and the development of the market information line. The electronic sales worked very well for several sales, and were quite well accepted by a number of the buyers, but suffered from a lack of producer support. An advantage of this type of auction was the ability of the producer to set a minimum bid for his lambs, but the very erratic week to week variation in the traditional markets made it difficult to set realistic minimums. A very thorough study was made of the Ontario Pork single desk marketing, as this type of marketing had definitely been a consideration in the discussions leading up to the formation of OSMA. However, the major stumbling block was that, unlike pork, there is no “standard” market lamb. As well, the proportion of heavy lambs available for market in the late 1980’s was much smaller than today. The diversity of our market, where there is a home for every size and shape of lamb seemed to make the implementation of a single desk system unworkable.
Product promotion was a major emphasis in the first years. Through OMAF’s Red Meat Plan and Red Meat II, grants of $100,000 per year were made available. The focus was on promoting lamb through high-end butcher shops that would feature Ontario lamb, and promotion materials were made available to them. As well, materials were made available to producers for the freezer trade.
Considerable effort was also made to help district committees fully understand the operation and responsibilities of the Agency. Annual district committee conferences were held, and a binder of information made available to every district committee member that outlined in detail the structure and functions of the Agency.
Although OSMA was formed by action of the Minister of Agriculture without a producer vote, the original commission report had called for a referendum to be held on the continuance of the Agency after a reasonable length of time. That vote was held in April of 1989, and resulted in a 72% “yes” vote for continuance. At the 1989 Annual Meeting, the OSA was officially disbanded, and all its assets and responsibilities were turned over to OSMA. Assets included some shares in the Canadian Co-operative Wool Growers (which fund the OSMA scholarship program). OSMA continued to sponsor the annual Sheep Focus, including the R.O.P. ram sale, (which had been a project of OSA). OSMA also became the provincial organization representing the purebred sector and electing directors to the Canadian Sheep Breeders Association.
The license fee structure has also evolved over the years. Originally the fee was 1% of sales, then raised to 1-½% in 1987. Custom slaughter was included from the start. Direct to processor farm gate sales were a very controversial issue. These sales avoided the check-off, and it was also felt that bringing all sales into the competitive bidding process would strengthen the market. At the 1987 annual meeting a resolution was passed to ban farm gate sales completely. However, when the board considered the issue in detail, it was decided to allow farm gate sales only on the condition that the license fees were paid, as it stands today. In the 1990’s, the fee structure was again changed to a flat fee per head.
While OSMA certainly had its growing pains in the early years, some of the early initiatives can still be seen in a number of areas of the current market. Of particular significance has been the relationships that have developed between OSMA and leading lamb processors, as well as those butcher shops that carry and promote our product. The trend to heavier weights of lambs has also helped the market develop.
In April 2010, OSMA celebrated it’s 25th Anniversary year.
~ A special thank you to Francis Winger for providing this history. Francis was secretary-treasurer of the Ontario Sheep Association from 1979 - 1985, and the first manager of OSMA from 1985 - 1992.