I made a pilgrimage to Pennsylvania to learn about how local farms are producing some of the best lamb in the United States. In the process, I met a butcher named Chicken who taught me things I didn't expect.
His name was Chicken, and he was cutting a side of beef.
But I was there to learn about lamb.
Strung from a belt around his waist was a scabbard, a metal holder full of knives, and a five-inch wide plastic cuff on his right wrist. "So I don't cut myself," he said, knocking it with the handle of his knife. I was wearing a lab coat and a hair net, both courtesy of Rising Springs, a processing plant in Spring Mills, Pennsylvania.
Chicken—a.k.a. Greg Foringer—has worked in processing plants most of his adult life, and at Rising Springs for the last three. Butchering meat—cutting—was relatively new for him. "I just love it," he said. "I always learn something new." Once you make a cut, there's no going back.
John Poiarkoff, executive chef of Brooklyn restaurants, The Pines and Willow, Carver Farrell, the restaurants' owner, and Dan Honig and Alex Dimin from Happy Valley Meat, their meat supplier, joined me. Chicken held a flimsy plastic-handled knife in one hand and a hook that he used to twist and turn the meat on the white plastic cutting table in the other. The noise it emitted was like metal on asphalt.
The beauty of taking the time to visit your processing plant, and the farms you source your goods from are many. The idea for the road trip was Farrell's. Born and raised in Bovina, a small town in Delaware County, New York, Farrell grew up homesteading with his parents who raised all of their own food. Surrounded by animals he knew by name, and with the idealism of a teenager, Farrell quit eating meat when he was fourteen. "Our animals and the animals raised on the farms around us were all treated humanely. I just had a difficult time as a young person eating meat," he wrote me.
Earlier that morning, we took a tour of Grassy Meadows, a 180-acre Amish farm that Happy Valley contracts for its lamb. Amos, the owner, greeted us with a firm handshake and smile. Then he gave each of us a yellow spiral bound cookbook—Lamb Country Cooking—and we sat around the kitchen table snacking on whole spears of asparagus from his wife Lydia's garden. It was my first time in an Amish home and I discreetly looked around. It didn't seem different from a normal home, save for zero electronics, but it was a lot bigger.
Like many Amish, Amos' parents were dairy farmers, a field of work that is almost impossible to make viable. When he first bought the farm he started with vegetables. In the eighties when meat became more profitable, he switched. They started with feeding calves for feedlots, then raising veal, which his son now oversees. "It was more of a steady income. The children would have work year round, and they could have chores," he said.
Their daughter, who loves animals, is the one that got them in to sheep. They started with a couple and now they have 210. At first they raised them for their wool. But now it's the opposite.Amos chose California Red sheep after reading about it in a farming magazine. "When they get older, I don't castrate them. They say it makes more lean meat, I think that has something to do with it," Amos said.
Despite his kind demeanor, the animals on Amos' farm were agitated and running between paddocks, which they shared with cattle. Because animals can get parasites from not moving frequently between pastures, it's good to have a variety of animals on a farm. "It's a lot better if you have the two running together, or one after the other, that way if they have parasites, the one won't hurt the other."
"They're antibiotic free," Amos said. "My market in the Poconos, they want grass fed. I like mostly grass with a little bit of grain. One of the biggest problems is these people right there," he said pointing to a neighbors field and two large birds with a giant wingspan. "The turkey buzzards, they'll come in and eat the after birth of a lamb after being born. They'll attack them and go for the eyes. It's the same with the cattle. I don't know how to eliminate that."
There are coyote too, and for that they have Bingo (the dog), two donkeys and an electric fence. I asked how he had an electric fence with their religious rules, and he mentioned the power came from a box. It was a generator, which is OK because it's off the grid and self-sustaining.
Our next stop was a farm that sat on land that Farrell knew from his childhood. Evans and Evans Farm in Andes, New York, is a bucolic mixture of red barns, tall grain silos—from the last owner—rolling hills, pastureland, woods, an old ski run, two houses and five border collies. The 170-acre farm is also home to over 220 Katahdin sheep and lamb.
Katahdin sheep were first developed in Maine. They're resistant to parasites in most cases, have a high fertility, a mild taste, and the animals shed their winter coat, which means no sheering, a chore that is expensive and worth very little these days. The Evans' raise their Katahdin sheep on pasture alone. This involves moving them several times a day between fields with the help of their dogs and a moveable electric fence. While getting their herd the right amount of food proves challenging—mainly in winter when they're fed bailage and hay, which isn't as nutritious as grass—the Evans' are committed to pasture-raised.
Raising animals on only the grass they come in contact with was once an everyday occurrence. Now, with industrial farming, the global increase in population and our higher demand for protein, those practices have changed. Most animals that are allowed to forage are still transitioned to grain, like on Amos' farm. Switching an animal to grain for the last few months of their lives ensures a higher fat content and the marbling that many chefs prefer. By farming naturally, the Evans keep pesticides, fertilizers, and animal waste out of the water supply, while producing quality animals for their customers.
After making sure their animals gain enough weight in the winter, the next challenge is finding an acceptable processing plant. The Evans' use Steiner's in Otego, which can only accommodate two animals every other week. After that, whole animals are trucked by a local food hub—Lucky Dog—to Marlow & Daughters for sale in their shop and on the menus in their restaurants. The lamb sells for $8.50 a pound, but that's not what it really costs. "God this is hard enough as it is," Joe told us. "I cost each lamb out, just our time and cost of feed, at $767 dollars per lamb. We only slaughtered fifty lambs last year, which is another reason we need more. Doesn't take a genius to realize that's a problem." The Evans' are losing about $300 on each whole animal.
The animals on the farm are oozing with happiness and Carver and John both mention they would like to try the lamb, but there's a bottleneck. There's no fancy app for a slaughterhouse, and the basics of what the job entails—killing animals, blood and guts—still draws a certain type of person or operation. The Evans' have looked, but aren't happy with what they've seen: how the animals are lead in (is it disruptive or fraught?), killed (is it one stun, or multiple), cut and packaged (are cuts labeled correctly). "That's what's important: You want to take them in, and you want to see that they're taken care of," Joe said.
Unlike the bolting lambs at Amos' farm, these animals are friendly and happy to be close to us. "You see they are quite comfortable," Jackie said. "We see them regularly. We're walking amongst them. We move them daily." As she talked, the cacophony from the sheep and lamb was overwhelming.
"Really what you're doing is harvesting the sunlight, which gives them the energy to grow and goes into the grass, which they then eat and pull the nutrition and energy out of." If there were a farm in sheep heaven, this would be it, and the Evans' are running the show.