Living on the Lamb
Get to know a few of the the Pacific Northwest area’s lamb suppliers, and even meet some at the lamb fests taking place around the region this fall—and for the truly hardcore foodie, get schooled about lamb butchery.
By James Patrick Kelly
Not long ago, lamb from the Southern Hemisphere was the chop of choice at the butcher’s counter. Finding exceptional domestic lamb was not easy. Even if you could find locally pastured lamb, it was often expensive, frustratingly inconsistent, and not as readily available as imported lamb.
But today more and more farmers markets, restaurants, and natural food stores are carrying grass-fed lamb, produced by local farms. The reasons for lamb’s newfound appeal vary from increasing consumer interest in grass-fed meat to its smaller carbon “hoof” print, consistent availability and quality. Not to mention it delivers a flavorful bang for the buck—especially when purchased as a whole or half animal and butchered at home.
Like many chefs during the ‘90s, I used lamb from New Zealand, as well as Colorado lamb on occasion. There wasn’t as much local lamb around as there is now,” says Scott Dolich, chef/owner of Portland’s Park Kitchen and Bent Brick, his new eatery which opened this past June and features hyper-local cuisine.
Rocky Mountain lamb was popular for a while, when curious Northwest chefs like Dolich started searching out domestic meat. But this grain-fed American lamb, raised by large producers in northern Colorado, doesn’t appeal to everyone’s palates. Most people who order lamb enjoy its earthy, robust flavor, whereas grain-fed lamb is extremely mild, much like grain-fed beef.
By contrast, sheep in the Northwest are primarily raised on a diet free of grains. Ruminant livestock such as sheep are efficient converters of plant proteins to meat protein, more so than cattle. Free to graze on all the grass they can eat, lamb is naturally lean as a result—low in calories, fat, and cholesterol—and an excellent source of iron, zinc, and vitamin B-12.
Regionally raised lamb also appeals to the eat-local mindset, which has remarkably changed the way restaurants are doing business. Many chefs have shied away from serving meat from well-traveled animals, fattened on grains on feedlots far away from the Northwest’s verdant valleys.
Since 2001, SuDan Farm has been one of a handful of Pacific Northwest producers that has helped meet this rising demand for local lamb and, in the process, redefined the industry by putting an emphasis on natural ranching practices such as chemical-free grass pastures, no antibiotics, no growth hormones, and no additives or preservatives.
“My animals are strictly raised on grass. I’m not organic, but I follow the same practices,” says Dan Wilson, who owns and oversees an 11-acre farm with his wife, Susie.
SuDan Farm raises and slaughters about 1,600 lambs a year—that’s approximately 30 lambs per week, each weighing about 55 pounds—most of which ends up at Portland and surrounding area farmers markets and at various eateries throughout the region.
Rancher John Neumeister managed a slightly larger operation, Cattail Creek Lamb, raising about 2,500 lambs per year in the southern Willamette Valley. His lamb was featured at fine restaurants in Oregon, Washington, and California, including Alice Waters’s famed Chez Panisse. This year has been challenging for Neumeister, who closed his business in March to restructure it after his partnership with another sheep ranch was dissolved. But he plans to have his lamb back on menus, hopefully by next summer.
“Portland, right now, actually has a shortage of lamb,” Neumeister says.
He’s right, and as a result lamb has never cost so much. The worldwide spike in prices can be attributed to the New Zealand and Australian markets, which are producing less lamb than they have in the past due to drought and other natural disasters.
Helping to keep lamb in Northwest markets is Anderson Ranch, located in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where about 10,000 head of sheep are raised on grass only, fed no by-products, antibiotics, or growth hormones. Owner Reed Anderson, a fourth-generation sheep rancher, sees the land as his livelihood—more so, his legacy.
“We’re getting into a new generation of people that are discovering lamb for the first time. People are really starting to reconnect and get to know their farmer and where their food comes from,” said Anderson.
Lava Lake Lamb is another all-natural, grass-fed producer of Pacific Northwest lamb. Based in Hailey, Idaho, the operation uses about 800,000 acres—mostly Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land—to raise its herd of 12,000 ewes, lambs, and rams, which are protected by a crack squad of Peruvian herders and attentive sheep dogs. In addition, the company has 25,000 acres of its own land near Carey, skirted by the ancient black lava flows of Craters of the Moon National Monument.
The company, which annually butchers around 3,500 sheep, sells packaged fresh and frozen lamb. It previously had an organic brand of lamb, but that program was discontinued, in part because consumers don’t appear to be as enthralled with organic-labeled food as they once were.
“The organic label doesn’t have the teeth it used to. People are happy with grass-fed meat that’s not exposed to antibiotics and chemicals,” says Mike Gordon, sales coordinator at Lava Lake Lamb. “We can do that without being organic.”
Lava Lake Lamb distributes most of its meat in the Sun Valley and Boise areas (CK’s Real Food in Hailey and Red Feather Lounge in Boise are good places to try it), but Lava Lake also recently branched out into the Seattle and Portland markets. As a matter of fact, John Neumeister of Cattail Creek Lamb has just struck a deal with the company to distribute this Idaho lamb in the Portland area, mostly to larger restaurant accounts.
On the smaller end of the production spectrum is Martiny Livestock near Concrete, Washington. Owner Linda Martiny knows a thing or two about sheep, considering she grew up on a sheep ranch in the Pahsimeroi Valley of Idaho—about 50 miles north of Hailey.
Martiny and her husband, Mike Donnelly, tend a flock of around 30 Suffolk-breed sheep, as well as Angus cattle, on their 20-acre ranch in the mountainous reaches of north-central Skagit County. She works the crowd on weekends in the Seattle area at the Edmonds Farmers Market and at the Lake Forest Park Farmers Market, where her lamb has become a hit.
“In the last five years, the demand for farm-raised lamb has increased incredibly,” Martiny says.
Yet there’s still a lot of room for the lamb market to grow. Average annual consumption of lamb in the United States is only one pound per person, compared to 65 pounds of beef, and 50 pounds apiece for pork and poultry.
But now that the Pacific Northwest has a flock of local shepherds who are raising lamb locally for our tables, it’s a great time to (re)discover its flavorful pleasures—and to be thankful for ranchers like Neumeister, Wilson, Anderson, Martiny, and others who are enriching the local food economy with locally raised, grass-fed lamb.
From the September/October 2011 issue of Northwest Palate Magazine
Trailing of the Sheep festival in Ketchum, Sun Valley, and Hailey, ID
Spicy Lamb Salad recipe from CK’s in Hailey, Idaho
Lamb Shoulder Confit, Warm Huckleberry Preserves, Creamy Parsnips from Mark Bodinet of Copperleaf Restaurant at the Cedarbrooke Lodge in Seattle, Washington (Best in Show winner from Lamb Jam)
Lava Lake Lamb photo by Dana Hopper-Kelly
Anderson Ranch and Grilled Lamb Chops photos by John Valls.