|New Jersey Lamb Production Rises with Ethnic Demand and Boosting Prices
By LINDA A. JOHNSON
(June 1, 2006) Farmer Charlene Carlisle sold her first pair of lambs – the result of her young daughter's 4-H Club project – 12 years ago.
Now she keeps about 200 lambs, ewes and rams on her farm, where they gradually have replaced the hundreds of dairy cows her husband had raised for nearly 20 years.
"They're small, they're easier to handle, they're more docile than cows," she said recently, adding, "It's a lot less expensive to get into sheep than other livestock."
Sheep farming in the Garden State declined in the last century, but in the last several years it has been slowly rebounding, farmers and agriculture experts say.
The new trend is fueled by everything from the modest startup costs and small amount of land needed, to rising market prices and increased demand from New Jersey's diverse ethnic groups. Hispanics and Greeks favor lamb for Easter, Orthodox Easter and other holidays; Italians, Turks and other Middle Eastern people enjoy it, and it's a year-round staple for Muslims. Improved genetics also have made lamb relatively lean for a red meat, widening its appeal.
Sheep are still a relatively small niche in New Jersey agriculture, but farmers, butchers and others in the industry see sheep farmers increasing the size of their flocks and new people getting in on a small scale. Raising lamb is particularly attractive for women and even retirees because the animals are so gentle.
At Carlisle's "Little Hooves" farm, she tends sheep in pastures and three huge converted cow barns while husband Kenny grows 350 acres of corn, hay and soybeans, some to feed the flock and the rest to sell.
"We've been getting bigger every year," she said.
Carlisle, who expected to sell about half her flock for this year's Easter holidays, sells lambs for meat and the older sheep for breeding. She also sells their sheared wool to crafters and a "wool pool," and racks up awards at regional competitions, making her breeding stock more valuable.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, New Jersey had 691 farms with a total of 12,900 sheep in 1997 and 894 farms with 15,000 sheep in 2002, the last year it did a count here. About 80 percent of the farms had less than 25 sheep.
Nationwide, the sheep herd fell from about 8 million in 1997 to 6.1 million in 2004, then edged up to 6.23 million in 2006. Market prices – what butchers or livestock auctions pay for a live sheep – have risen from an average of $96 in 1997 to $130 last year.
"The market is strong," said Gregory Nunn of the Livestock Cooperative Auction Market Association of North Jersey in Hackettstown.
The average the auction pays per lamb or sheep, which is sold as mutton, has doubled over the last 10 years, he said.
Jeff Bringhurst of Bringhurst Meats in Berlin said lamb sales have probably doubled in the last few years and prices generally have been rising steadily. As a result, sheep farmers are building up their flocks.
Still, as is the case for many Garden State farmers, it's not enough to make a living. Carlisle works full time as a nurse, and her sheep and wool sales only provide 20 percent of the family income.
Donald Kniffen, president of the Garden State Sheep Breeders, said rising land prices make raising sheep more practical than cows in New Jersey: On about five acres, a farmer can graze five ewes and produce 10 lambs ready for sale in a year, compared with one cow needing almost 2 years to produce a market-ready calf.
He keeps 30 sheep on rented land in Readington Township. About a dozen are going out now for children's 4-H projects and people who use the animals to get tax breaks on farmland.
That requires $500 in gross income for five acres, so a growing number of people buy a half-dozen or so lambs in the spring, fatten them up and sell them to a butcher in the fall, said Robert Mickel, a Rutgers livestock agent who has put together a manual explaining how to buy, care for and sell lambs. He's seen an upsurge the last five years in people requesting the manual and expects more people buying "farmettes" to try their hand at sheep raising.
Peggy Dey, whose husband's family jointly farms 500 acres and raises horses in Upper Freehold, got into sheep farming six years ago because her children wanted to join in with an animal small enough to hold. They soon went from one lamb to about 15 sheep in a separate operation called Hillside Farm.
"It can suck you in, because it's fun," Dey said.
She said caring for the sheep is a good character-builder for her children, but she loses money at it.
Many New Jersey sheep farmers make a bit more by selling directly to customers who order a specific size lamb in advance. Others have found a special niche.
Grace Standish, of Freedom Farms in Kingwood, started her first commercial flock in high school and still has about 30 sheep at age 61. She sells lambs for everything from fresh and frozen meat to pets to "lawn mowers," but earns more from sheepskins and custom products made from the wool, including Christmas stockings, sweaters and vests.
Torrey Reade, once a partner in an investment management business, raises about 55 certified organic sheep at Neptune Farm in Lower Alloways Creek Township, where her husband raises beef cattle, asparagus and blueberries. She sells most of her lambs to the White Dog Cafe, an upscale Philadelphia restaurant, and the rest directly to families.
Then there's Ulf Kintzel, 38, considered New Jersey's only full-time shepherd. Trained for the profession in his native Germany, he uses dogs to lead his 300 sheep through rented pastures around his White Clover Sheep Farm in Wantage by day. At night, the sheep are protected in barns or pastures with electrified fences to keep out coyotes.
Besides selling sheep privately and at auction, he shears sheep for other farmers and trains shepherd dogs for others. Kintzel expects sheep farmers to enlarge their flocks, given rising demand and prices in New Jersey.
"I think especially in the Northeast here, sheep farmers have a good future," he said.