Bellwether Behavior

In the Northeast, a sheep market on the rise amid national decline.

The number of sheep raised in the United Sates has decreased by half in the last two decades, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While ranchers with large Western and Midwestern operations are experiencing this decline the most, small, diversified farmers in the Northeast in increasing numbers are taking up the shepherd's crook and raising the ruminants on their green pastures.

Two of the most obvious reasons for the in-flocking of sheep to the Northeast are its climate, which is ideal for grass-growing, and its many large metropolitan centers— and thus, ready market demand. In the 1800s, the Northeast was home to an abundance of pasture-raised livestock. But as pioneers pursued land in the West, livestock operations followed. Today, the reintroduction of more sheep can help protect the region’s natural grass belt. “With sheep,” says Craig Haney, Stone Barns Center's Livestock Director, “we are taking a renewable resource—grass—maintaining it and raising sheep on it, a great source of milk, meat or fiber.” He and his team raise 50 to 120 sheep on our 22 acres of pasture. A responsibly managed, rotationally grazed pasture prevents soil erosion, improves soil quality and absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Sheep are an appealing herbivore for small farmers, as sheep require minimal inputs and smaller initial capital investments than do cows, yet can lead to faster returns on that investment. But even under ideal circumstances, raising sheep has its difficulties. One is the presence of barber pole worm, a naturally occurring parasite that can cause anemia and other complications, including death. To help small and beginning farmers cope with these challenges, researchers such as Dr. tatiana Stanton of Cornell University are working toward solutions. The Stone Barns Center flock is part of Stanton’s study to determine whether the presence of copper in sheep rumens can bring the barber pole worm level down to manageable levels.

The Northeast’s rising demand for local, grass-fed lamb, as evidenced in farmers markets and restaurants, is also making sheep-farming attractive and viable. And because the culinary traditions of many cultures favor lamb and mutton, the urban demand among ethnic populations offers a strong incentive for sheep farmers, too.

Sheep and the Northeast farmers raising them may be at the head of the herd, moving toward a food system that adheres to the limitations of climate and the needs of animals and the environment.