Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Sheep ranching holding its own

Sustainability movement helps industry in southern Idaho

Express Staff Writer

Sheep from Lava Lake Lamb graze on more than 800,000 acres of land over the course of their lives, “following the green” to find fresh pasture over the main growing season. Photo by Mountain Express

"Sheep ranching hasn't changed in hundreds of years," said Cheryl Bennett, manager of Blaine County-based Lava Lake Lamb.

John Peavey, co-owner of Flat Top Ranch near Carey, says it stretches back even further, past the biblical era and into prehistory, when the first wolf helped prehistoric man herd the first wild sheep.

And Laura Sluder, owner of Blue Sage Farm in Shoshone, raises and milks all of her sheep herself, the same way small farmers have for centuries.

The sheep tradition runs deep in south-central Idaho. Diane Peavey, John Peavey's wife and business partner at Flat Top Ranch, said sheep have been grazing on part of their ranchland since the late 1880s. But falling prices and a general lack of willingness to use lamb as a main source of protein caused the sheep ranching tradition to fade in the valley.

"There have been a lot of changes, a lot of shrinkage," John said.

He estimated that the industry is down 90 percent from its peak just after World War II. The sheep industry crashed in 2001, with prices dropping by 40 cents a pound over two months, causing many ranchers to fold.

Now, the market is recovering and modern-day ranchers can barely keep up with demand. Diane attributes the upswing to the creation of a regional co-op her husband and other regional farmers started, the Mountain States Rosen Co-op, that makes local lamb available under the brand name Cedar Springs Lamb.

"They have completely turned the market around," Diane said. "I would hardly say any of us are flush, but we're doing fine."

Bennett started working at Lava Lake Ranch six years ago, though the company was founded in 1999 with the purchase of three major ranches in the area. Since then, Lava Lake Lamb has been sold through farmers markets, the Idaho's Bounty co-op, Lava Lake's own website and to celebrity chefs such as Cat Cora.

The key to success, Bennett said, is that the lambs are raised in a traditional fashion, with the ewes "following the green" north each season and continually grazing on fresh forage.

"Most chefs appreciate quality," she said, especially locally. "It's encouraging that we have chefs in the valley who care where the food comes from."

Lava Lake lamb is on the menu of 15 restaurants in Ketchum and Hailey, including CK's Real Food and Cristina's.

Lava Lake lamb may be featured on Cristina's menu, but Blue Sage is featured in their cheese case. Sluder said she can't keep up with the demand for her products, which include four types of sheep cheese, multiple cuts of lamb and even a few sausages.

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"I'm maxed out on product," Sluder said. "I'm really happy with the market I've established."

Though she said her one-woman operation can't keep up with the growing demand, she continually markets her product in case her clientele falls off.

"You always lose chefs, you always lose customers," Sluder said. "It's inevitable."

Diane Peavey, too, has noticed that the popularity of lamb as a product is on the rise.

"You can pick up any food magazine from Bon Appetit to Food and Wine and you will see lamb dishes," she said. "For years, that wasn't the case. People are beginning to see how much you can do with lamb."

Bennett said much of the increase in lamb demand comes from lamb's reputation as sustainable meat. Lava Lake lambs are certified organic, hormone- and antibiotic-free, which Bennett said are major selling points.

"You have to assume that if the animal is healthy and happy, it's healthy for us," she said. "I think people are more aware of what they are eating."

The documentary film "Food, Inc.", which focused on the fast-food and commercial food industries, aired on PBS in April. Sluder said she saw a surge in her sales shortly afterward. The impact of the sustainability trend on her sales is "huge," she said.

The burgeoning market, however, does not mean that today's ranchers aren't challenged. Bennett said her major struggle is getting her lamb to her customers. So many people want fresh lamb, she said, and Lava Lake Lamb is all sold frozen because of the distances it must be shipped.

"We're so remote," Bennett said. "For rural Idaho, it's not feasible for everything to be fresh."

The Peaveys said that dealing with wildlife and the recent outbreak of pneumonia virus among wild bighorn sheep are major problems for them, but one other obstacle to the market's expansion is that people simply don't eat enough lamb.

"Lamb is still not, you know, chicken," Diane said. "Promoting lamb and helping people understand how to use it is a big challenge to the industry."

Sluder said her main challenge, apart from her lack of a staff to help her with day-to-day operations, is that the United States does not have a good genetic stock to draw from when it comes to breeding dairy sheep.

"It was a huge investment to get the dairy going," she said. "The industry is growing and there just aren't enough sheep out there."

Sheep cannot be imported into the U.S. due to concerns about mad cow disease.

"It's going to take a long time to build a good sheep dairy herd," Sluder said, adding that she has a waiting list of ranchers from California who want to buy her breeding stock.

But all four local ranchers agree that the rewards of sheep ranching are plentiful. While Sluder said she loves that her two children get to grow up on a farm, Diane Peavey said she loves the ranching life as a whole, especially aspects that likely haven't changed over the centuries that the industry has existed.

"Just getting up every day and doing the work is a real joy," she said. "Even listening to the sheep graze in an aspen grove—it's just beautiful."

Katherine Wutz:

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