Thousands flock to Spicy Lamb Farm

Crazy at times is how Summit County Farm Bureau member Laura Minnig describes her experiences on her Spicy Lamb Farm, located in the 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park. In 2007, Minnig signed a 60-year lease on an old farmstead through the Countryside Initiative, a program that preserves and protects the rural landscape and century-old buildings in the park. The program has about a dozen farms, which draw more than 100,000 people into the park each year.

An environmental consultant, Minnig spent half a year developing a plan to raise sheep through sustainable farming practices as required in the competitively awarded lease. She wasn’t deterred by the fact that she’d never farmed before.

“I was one of those crazy people who woke up one day and decided they wanted to farm,” she said while sipping tea in her 102-year-old farmhouse. “I literally came here with no experience other than picking what I wanted for dinner on my grandfather’s gentleman farm and being an equestrian.”

Minnig’s fascination with sheep started as a teenager living in rural England. Her father’s job with the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. had sent the family overseas, and it seemed like sheep were everywhere. It wasn’t long before she was eating lamb, a popular meat in England.

“My joke is that I always wanted to have sheep and learn how to play the bagpipes. And my mom said ‘Sheep smell and the bagpipes are too noisy.’ As you can see, I have sheep and the bagpipes are over there,” she laughed, pointing to a corner in the house.

For the past nine years, Minnig has been raising Dorset sheep, one of the oldest breeds in the British Isles. Demand for local food has been driving more business to the farm where the meat is sold as well as at Countryside Conservancy’s farmers markets. Lamb has been particularly popular with “foodies” and ethnic markets in Cleveland, Akron and other northeastern Ohio cities, Minnig said noting that special dinners at her farm are helping promote the red meat.

“This past Saturday we had a dinner out in the pavilion. On Monday morning, half the people who had dinner Saturday night wanted to buy a custom butchered lamb. All these people say ‘We would love to have American lamb or Ohio lamb instead of Australian or New Zealand’ and there’s a huge potential market there,” she said, noting that almost half of the lamb meat eaten here is imported.

Minnig also sells wool blankets and yarn that come from her sheep during special events at the farm and at the Yellow Creek Trading Company, just down the hill in the village of Peninsula. She recently started raising Rouen ducks (a lean duck that looks like a Mallard) and has an orchard of apples, pears and plums.

Over the years, Minnig has worked hard to establish her farm and deal with challenges. She traveled to Australia, New Zealand and England to learn everything she could about Dorsets. A major setback was in May 2014 when a fire burned the almost century-old barn to the ground. Going through the permit and rebuilding process was both time consuming and stressful. To help cover the cost of rebuilding the barn, Minnig added more special paid events at the farm.

One very special event in the new barn was her wedding in September 2015. She and Michael Minnig had met decades earlier at the Portage Country Club in Akron but went their separate ways until Michael reconnected with her when he moved back to Ohio in 2014. The occupancy permit for the new barn cleared just six days before the wedding.

Today the new barn serves as the hub of the farm’s agritourism activities. Part of it is used for lambing (keeping the newborns inside protects them from predators such as black vultures and coyotes), horse stalls and a store where yarn, wool blankets, fiber crafts and other items are sold. Spring is the busiest time with thousands of visitors marveling over the baby animals, seeing how sheep are sheared, listening to bagpipes, watching dog herding competitions and participating in a ceremony where a local priest blesses the sheep.

Minnig’s ultimate goal is to educate visitors about agriculture’s role in their daily lives.

“There’s a real huge disconnect in the cities of people who don’t understand where their food comes from,” she said. “Sometimes people will say ‘I don’t understand why you take your lambs to the butcher. Why don’t you just buy your meat at the grocery store?’”

For Minnig, living in the state’s only national park has both its pros and cons. With an average 2.2 million visitors to the park every year, the farm has a built-in customer base. Living in a park isn’t always easy, though. At times Minnig feels like she’s living in “a glass house” and feels the pressure to keep the working farm clean. But she’s grown to love her life on the farm.

“What a great place to grow old and have your kids grow up in,” she said.

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