Robert Egli (pronounced egg-lee) had always dreamed of owning a farm, however the price of property in his native country of Switzerland was too expensive. He ventured to Canada in 1951 with plans to find work, make some money and return home, but an opportunity arose to acquire farmland in Minnitaki. A year later, his fiancée, Margarit Jeker left the thriving city of Zurich, Switzerland to join Robert and the young couple were married in Thunder Bay. In 1952, they purchased the farm that Robert had always dreamed of owning and began a new life in Northwestern Ontario.
Robert recognized the potential that this region had for sheep farming as it was well suited for forage (hay and grass production). His vision was to convert forage, a natural renewable resource, into valuable commodities – lamb meat and wool. The pioneer couple began with two dozen sheep which later grew into 450 ewes with about 700 lambs yearly.
For the first few years, Robert worked at the Dryden Paper Mill until 1965 at which time he left the mill to devote his time to farming.
They soon realized that one of the biggest problems they faced was the distance to the market and processing areas in Southern Ontario. In one instance, the cost for the freight to ship raw wool to southern Ontario was almost as much as they received for the wool itself. Also the market price received for the lambs was influenced by the volume of inexpensive New Zealand and Australian lamb meat available.
In order to survive, the Egli’s had to try something different – merchandising their finished product locally. They began selling lamb meat from their home in the early ’70s. It took some time to build up a clientele but eventually they were able to cut, wrap and sell about 300 lambs a year to individuals in the surrounding area. Around the same time, Robert had a few sheepskins tanned to offer for sale as well as some sheepskin mitts and slippers from a supplier. The first Wool & Sheepskin Shop was attached to the side of the garage.
In 1982, construction began on a new 2000 sq. ft. retail shop attached to the family home. The old garage was converted into a sewing room. They invested in industrial sewing machines and hired staff to begin manufacturing the merchandise themselves. Dallas Phillips, a sheepskin seamster, was hired who had previous experience in New Zealand, to work in the manufacturing facility and to train others in the trade. Other wool, leather and sheepskin products were brought in for resale to complement the line of sheepskin products being manufactured on-site. The retail shop has been expanded to approximately 4000 sq. ft making it one of Canada’s largest wool and sheepskin specialty stores.
Egli's Sheep Farm after the 2011 expansion.
Robert and Margarit made several visits to tanneries, farms and sheepskin shops on trips to New Zealand and Australia. They gained valuable knowledge and insight about the sheep farming industry and brought home some new ideas. They began to import sheepskin and wool from New Zealand and Australia to meet the growing demand for their manufactured products.
The first annual mail-order catalogue was hand drawn in black and white in 1986, expanding marketing opportunities for the farm’s niche of quality merchandise. The mail-order business has continued to grow over the years to the point that in 2014, over 250,000 catalogues were printed and distributed across Canada and the USA.
As a way to attract visitors and make the store easy to find on the highway, the “Big Sheep” – a nine foot by seven foot replica of a sheep was constructed in 1987.
Robert has always been involved in the agricultural community and in 1988, the business was recognized for its significant contribution to agriculture by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, as well as by the Northern Ontario Business Association for its business leadership.
With the launch of a website in 1999, sales continued to increase.
The Annual Easter Saturday Open Barn event has become a tradition with over 3000 people attending each year to see the newborn animals. The idea of an Animal Park was born with the realization that there was a need to promote agriculture and let people see, firsthand, a variety of farm animals.
Robert and Margarit’s son, Peter, and his wife, Denise, assumed ownership of the business in 1998. Development of the Animal Park began in 1999 with the Grand Opening in the spring of 2002.
As the years progressed it became obvious that the retail space needed to be expanded in the store and in 2011 the shop was expanded to 4000 sq ft, with all merchandise being displayed on one open and accessible floor, with much more space for storage as well.
Egli’s Sheep Farm employs approximately 12 people in the manufacturing and retail business while maintaining a working family farm. The Egli’s attribute the success of the business to hard work, common sense, excellent staff and the commitment of the entire family.
In the current world market, the Eglis realize they need to be competitive to stay in the manufacturing business. It is an ongoing struggle to compete pricewise with the vast array of inexpensive imports, however it is their hope that by offering quality “Made in Canada” products and striving for excellent customer service they will continue to be a successful Canadian enterprise.