Is lamb on its way back to the American dinner table?
By Ray Bowman
(First published in the November 2016 issue of Kentucky Farm Bureau News)
Sheep first made their way to North America on the second voyage of Columbus in 1493. The versatile animal quickly found its niche and the flocks began to improve and grow with the infusion of better genetics through the early 1940’s.
It was during that time that the Bluegrass area of central Kentucky became a sheep focal point, with stories being told of all-night sheep sales in Danville and Paris and boxcar-loads of lambs being shipped out by rail.
But then something happened.
The national inventory of sheep topped 56 million in 1942, but a steady decline led to a 2006 count of a mere 6.2 million, the lowest since the introduction of the animal on what would become U.S. soil.
Reasons are unclear as to the precipitous fall from favor, but they range from available labor pools depleted by the second World War, poor quality mutton being served to GI’s, restrictions on grazing and the general competition from other livestock and meats.
Obviously, something had to be done to improve the product and image, reinvigorating the industry and getting it back on its feet. Innovators rose to the occasion and the fortunes of ovine America once again began to rise.
One change that came about was a greater focus on hair sheep. Wool had once been an economic driver in the sheep business, but increased foreign processing reduced the market until, today, the United States is responsible for less than 1 percent of all world-wide wool production, much of that being used for value-added limited production products.
Wool breeds are still important in this country for their larger carcass size and meat production, but hair sheep have become a very attractive option due to their quality meat, lower maintenance (no shearing) and adaptation to a range of varying environmental conditions.
One central Kentucky sheep producer longs for the glory days of Bluegrass lamb and has taken steps to do something about it.
James Mansfield owns Four Hills Farm in the Salvisa community of Mercer County and leases other property in Boyle County, just outside Danville.
Mansfield had worked in extension in North Carolina and raised produce in Oklahoma before settling in the Commonwealth.
“I moved here to Kentucky and saw all this beautiful grass and decided if I was going to have a farm, I had to use that great forage resource,” he observed as he and wife Lynn Pruett took a break in the breezy alleyway of a historic Danville mule barn that has been converted for the feeding and working of sheep. Around the turn of the 20th century, the barn housed mules slated for sale to the U.S. Army.
“We ended up buying 25 Katahadin ewes and kinda went from there,” he says. “I grew up eating lamb and we found out these sheep had excellent quality meat.” Mansfield notes his mother was an influence on his culinary choices, describing her as a cooking writer and an “early foodie.”
A national grocery store chain became interested in Mansfield’s product, which he designates as “New American Lamb,” a Kentucky Proud product, and began to feature it in 11 of their regional retail outlets. “We had to jump through a lot of hoops to get the product, the logistics and the marketing just the way they wanted it, starting with just two stores and growing from there.
One of the contingencies is that lamb, usually a seasonal product, be available fresh, year-round. To facilitate this, Mansfield’s flock has grown to 800 and he contracts with 47 producers in 17 other Kentucky counties to assure the supply.
“That’s what I always wanted to do,” Mansfield continues. “I always wanted to grow things I like to eat.”
Hopefully, for Mansfield and others trying to expand the sheep industry in Kentucky, there’s plenty of folks who will come back to entertaining lamb as a menu staple.