Virginia Sheep and Lamb Producers Find Niche Markets
The American Lamb Board, an industry association for sheep and lamb producers, organized a field trip designed to educate food influencers about local lamb. And so, a group of around 15 DC-area food writers, bloggers, chefs and their friends boarded a bus in Clarendon on Sunday, October 4 to visit Virginia sheep producers. Our trip also included a butchery tutorial, whole animal utilization discussion and a lamb-centric lunch.
Our first stop was at Zephaniah Farm Vineyard in Leesburg, VA owned by brothers Bill and Chris Hatch. These farmers also have Mill Road Farm, which produces pasture-fed Angus, lamb and honey just a short walk away. The group sampled wines while nibbling on savory bites of rosemary-flavored lamb sausage made by Patchwork Pastures in Luray, VA.
Gary Hornbaker, Loudoun County Rural Resources Coordinator and owner of Mutton Bustin' Farm in Berryville, VA shared some of the changes that have taken place in the regional lamb industry in recent years.
Lambs have gotten larger, to where a restaurant-grade animal may be 120-140 pounds. There's been a shift towards hair sheep, which tend to be leaner than wool sheep.
There has also been a focus on selling to ethnic communities in the region. While in the past, many farmers would try to have their lambs ready by Easter or Christmas, there is now a recognition that the Muslim holiday calendar also increases demand; family celebrations often feature lamb. Many immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, especially Muslims, favor lamb or goat over beef. And at the retail level, Muslim and Hispanic food markets control a large part of the sheep and goat industry.
One of the fastest growing areas of lamb sales is direct to consumer at farm markets or sold from farmer's own on-premise stores. According to the American Sheep Industry, one-third of all lamb is now sold direct from producer to customer. Many farmers have carved out their own niche, from raising lambs for fiber to selling to grass-fed lamb to restaurants to raising the animals for research purposes, as Hornbaker does.
But one thing has remained the same, he said: “Everybody loves lamb chops.”
Lunch featured platters of sliced leg of lamb, rib chops, shanks, and burgers with seasonal vegetable sides.
The meal was followed by a whole-lamb butchering demo by Matt Levere of Silver Spring's Urban Butcher. Levere broke down the animal as he would for the restaurant, to maximize the use for both the kitchen and butcher shop, as the group gathered around a table outside, including Zatinya chef, Michael Costa and the Maketto kitchen staff.
Eden Stiffman is a reporter for the Chronicle of Philanthropy where she writes about nonprofits. She's an avid home cook, and freelance food writer focused on food and farming.