Spring is here, and so is lamb season. Lamb is closely associated with Easter feasts, but did you know that the lengthening of days matches up with a lamb’s natural mating patterns?
Unfortunately, rare and heritage lamb breeds lack the industrial-sized methods of production which yield mass-produced, individual lamb cuts found in grocery stores. To avoid waste, Heritage Foods USA has moved into the half lamb game. Purchasing half lamb from our farmers is the best, most cost-efficient way to enjoy these gastronomical masterpieces.
This year, we were fortunate enough to acquire four rare breeds from four family farms, spanning from Vermont to Montana.
Tunis – Sandstone Ridge Farm, Wisconsin:
Having originated in North Africa, the Tunis is especially heat-tolerant and was the most popular breed of sheep in the Southern United States until the Civil War, when nearly all Tunis flocks were wiped out. Slowly but surely, through the efforts of farms like Sandstone Ridge, this breed is being brought back. The Tunis is an excellent grazer and produces meat that is flavorful, yet delicate.
When James and Lisa Twomey found their “piece of heaven” in La Farge, Wisconsin, the land was overgrown with weeds and shrubs. They decided sheep were the best animal to help them manage their pastures and settled on the Tunis, one of the oldest breeds the world. The Twomeys aren’t the only fans of the Tunis—both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson raised flocks of this personable, good-natured breed.
Dorset Horn – Tamarack Sheep Farm, Vermont:
Nestled in the pastoral valleys of Central Vermont, Ben Machin and Grace Bowmer are continuing a family tradition by raising sheep from the same genetic line as the flock started by Ben’s great-grandfather. Tamarack Sheep Farm is committed to the preservation and continuation of heritage lamb breeds and is excited to work with Heritage Foods for the first time, offering their Tunis-Dorset Horn lambs for Easter.
Ben and Grace love these breeds, not just because of their history, but also because they possess qualities beneficial for both farmer and customer. The Tunis is a sweet-natured sheep with a docile personality. As a breed known for heavy milking, the Dorset Horn ewe makes a particularly good mother, raising sturdy lambs with good appetites. Crossing these breeds ensures vigorous lambs that produce excellent quality meat.
With fewer than 1,000 registered in existence in The U.S. and less than 5,000 globally, the Dorset Horned lamb is on the ALBC’s Threatened list. Thought to have descended from an ancient breed native to southwestern England, Dorset Horned sheep boast a milky, almost airy meat that is incredibly tender and delicately flavored.
Katahdin – Clover Creek Farm, Tennessee:
The Katahdin is a meat breed, not a wool breed. As a result, it tastes delicious. The Katahdin sheep is the product of innovative thinking on behalf of a farmer named Michael Piel. In the 1950’s, Piel brought three sheep from St. Croix to his farm in Maine. He crossed these “African Hair Sheep,” as they were known, with his own flock of “Down” breeds (more typical wooly meat sheep found in New England), producing a lamb he called “Katahdin” after the highest mountain in Maine. The Katahdin does not need to be sheared and produces a well-muscled, lean but meaty carcass.
It is for these reasons that Chris Wilson has been raising Katahdin sheep on her farm in Tennessee for more than 18 years. Following the motto “farming in harmony with nature,” Chris raises Animal Welfare Approved sheep using rotational grazing methods. In 1999 Chris was named Conservation Farmer of the Year. The Katahdin lamb has delicious, succulent meat with nutty, full flavor.
Icelandic – Willow Spring Ranch, Montana:
Brought across the North Atlantic Ocean by the Vikings, Icelandic sheep were able to survive the harsh conditions thanks to their double- coated fleece and natural inclination to forage on pasture. Katy and Richard Harjes choose to raise Icelandics on their ranch in Montana for these reasons.
Founded in 2009 by Katy and Richard Harjes, Willow Spring Ranch is grass-fed certified by the American Grass-fed Association. The Harjes use organic, humane practices and raise their Icelandic lambs on a 100% grass diet, as soon as they are weaned.
Icelandic sheep are a true triple-threat, known for their creamy milk, luxurious wool, and fine-grained, clean-tasting meat. In fact, Icelandic meat is mild enough that it has been known to convert self-proclaimed “lamb-a-phobes.”
This year’s heritage lamb project was a huge success. Eighty lambs were sold in total, thirty-eight of which were purchased within the first week. In fact, we sold all of our Tunis sheep within the first week! As always, we’d like to thank those who were able to participate in our project and helped in making it a huge success. Your support allows our farmers to continue breeding and raising new lambs, and ensures the preservation of heritage breeds for years to come.