More than 30 percent of American lamb is now marketed through rapidly growing nontraditional channels including farmers markets, direct farm-to-consumer sales and smaller processors serving niche markets. In the meantime, large grocers including Kroger and Walmart have increased commitments to carry and promote American lamb.
As a result, the American Sheep Industry Association is calling upon current and new farmers to help grow the national sheep flock. The initiative, known as “Let’s Grow with twoPlus” calls for current farmers to increase their flock size by two ewes per farm or two ewes per 100 head; for farmers to increase the average birthrate per ewe to two lambs per year; and to increase their harvested lamb crop by 2 percent.
If realized, the plan will result in 315,000 more lambs, and 2 million more pounds of wool for the industry to market by 2014.
While Ohio ranks 13th nationally in sheep production, many of the Buckeye State’s shepherds believe there is plenty of room for more.
Ohio Sheep Improvement Association (OSIA) President Jim Percival said there is already demand, infrastructure and knowledge in place to support more sheep and new farmers.
“We’ve been able to put together programs (from Sheep Days to educational symposiums) that will take people from step one all the way through to the end of the production cycle,” he said. “This all makes it easy for somebody to get in (to the industry) and move forward with us.”
Daryl Clark, OSIA vice president, said there is room to grow in the hills of eastern Ohio, where he raises sheep in Muskingum County.
“We have land where you cannot grow crops, but we can grow grass and do a good job of it,” he said. “There is no other livestock that I think has adapted as well to this area than sheep have.”
David Rowe, general manager of Mid-States Wool Growers in Canal Winchester, said his company has had to broaden its area to find more producers and keep costs down. He said the situation has caused wool producers to “take a step back and address questions…and try to lay the groundwork for where the industry is going.
“Sometimes we have to look outside of what it is that we do, and see if there is a better way. Many times there is,” he said, mentioning farmers may be encouraged to bring different breeds into their traditional stocks.
Lamb and wool prices are at an all-time high, and there is a lot of confidence in the industry that this will be a long-term trend, making the sheep industry increasingly attractive to new farmers.
Sheep industry advocates say it’s easier and less expensive for young farmers to get involved in than other areas of agriculture, but that mentors are needed to help them grow. OSIA is working with the Ohio Department of Agriculture on a possible “summit” for those interested in joining the sheep industry, where longtime producers can share information, and it can bring people together to grow Ohio’s flock.
“But the ewes needed to help expand either aren’t born yet, or are in other areas of the country,” said OSIA Executive Director Roger High. “This (increase) isn’t going to happen tomorrow, but will be more of a two- to three-, or even a five- to 10-year project.”