Farm to market

A lamb's short life, from country meadow to dinner table

STEVE BARNES SENIOR WRITER
Section: Life-Food,  Page: E1

Date: Thursday, May 22, 2008

Elihu Farm Lamb No. 2735, one of the estimated 10 billion animals destined to become part of the American food chain every year, was born around 4 a.m. last June 6. Within an hour the spindly legged 8-pounder and his 7-pound twin sister were unsteadily following their mother through a verdant Washington County meadow, and by late morning they alternately napped and nursed while curled up in long grasses, warmed by brilliant late-spring sun.


Ten months and 120 pounds later, Lamb No. 2735 became the centerpiece of a Passover dinner for an extended family of 10 and contributed to four restaurant meals. This is his story. A lamb of mixed parentage, No. 2735 was bred to possess the best traits of his crossbred parents. Elihu's flocks are based on the Romney breed, the second-most widely raised sheep in the world, and incorporate strains of Rambouillet, a breed prized for its hardiness and size, and Merino, associated with fine wool for more than 800 years and the only breed more popular and economically important than Romney.


Mary Pratt, who with her husband, Bob, owns and runs Elihu Farm, discovered Lamb No. 2735 and his sister under a pine tree during a morning scouting session to check on the ewe. The twins were the last lambs born during the farm's winter-spring 2007 season.


Elihu's breeding stock includes 10 rams and about 110 ewes that produce up to 200 lambs per year. Its output places Elihu among the tens of thousands of small operations that comprise the majority of sheep farms in the United States but raise less than 20 percent of the nation's annual sheep production of 7 million head of lamb. (Most are raised on large ranches in western states.)


"One of the reasons we started raising lambs is because we like to eat it," said Mary Pratt. "We love the taste. There's nothing else like it."


The Pratts have a matter-of-fact manner when discussing the living creatures at the center of their livelihood, but it's abundantly evident that they care about, as well as for, sheep; often tender and gentle with the lambs, Mary Pratt also slept with a shotgun in a pickup truck parked in the pasture after an unknown animal, probably a great horned owl, killed and partly ate a lamb earlier this month - one of the rare lambs they've lost to predation over two decades.


The flock grows: The Pratts, who both hold doctoral degrees in the sciences, began their career as lamb farmers in 1986, starting with two lambs. A batch of 10 ewes produced 19 lambs the following spring. As the flock grew, so did the farm, to its current size of 150 acres in Easton; the Pratts became full-time farmers in 1999.


Depending on the year, Elihu Farm ewes are bred sometime from fall to January, and, after a five-month gestation, deliver lambs from January to June. On some days in late March through May, the Pratts might find 20 or more new additions, most born without incident. But with up to 200 pregnancies per year a few miscarriages are inevitable, meaning the Pratts are not unskilled in the unpleasant business of delivering stillborns.


A ewe uneventfully carried and delivered No. 2735 and his sister, and on the morning of their birth both nursed often. The lambs fed exclusively on milk for two weeks, but as their digestive systems developed and became able to process more complex food, they watched their mother's eating habits and began to sample the pasture grasses, corn and hay that would become their diet after weaning, at three to four months of age.


Adopting mom's habits: By early August, around his 2-month birthday, No. 2735 weighed 44 pounds, had a normal, healthy temperature of 102.5 degrees and was starting to put some meat on his bony body. He still stayed close to mom - weaning was weeks away - but together with his sister the three ranged the pastures, wandered down the hill to the Elihu pond and back up to the barn, past the querulous chickens and self-aggrandizing roosters.


"He's still kind of leggy," Mary Pratt said, appraising No. 2735, "but he'll fill out."


Grasses, clovers and dandelions are lamb delicacies, as are milkweed, flowering nettles and burdock, too, though you don't want burdock growing in your sheep pasture: Removing its burrs from wool can occupy an afternoon. The Pratts believe a feed mix of grain and pasture growth produces the tenderest meat. (Purely grassfed lamb, though leaner, has a pronounced flavor that some find offputting, and the lambs grow more slowly.)


"Their meat is so beautifully textured," said Paul Parker, chef-owner of Chez Sophie in Saratoga Springs, where Elihu lamb is a regular menu feature. "It has this amazing herbal quality. ... It tastes to me like I'm walking through their incredibly aromatic pasture."


After weaning, No. 2735 spent 24 hours a day outside throughout the long Indian summer, fall and incipient winter, coming into the barn only occasionally. As a ram lamb, he was destined never to see his first birthday: Elihu needs only a few rams to impregnate its ewes, and proven sires can live a decade. No. 2735's sister's fate was another matter; if she grew well and stayed healthy, the Pratts hoped to breed her, because she was a twin, and multiples make good economic sense: "The more twins you keep (to breed), the more you get. Then you start getting triplets," Mary Pratt said.


His wool grew in thick over the winter, and baled hay from Elihu's fields, along with supplements of corn and grain, boosted No. 2735's weight. The majority of the farm's lambs "go to market," in Mary Pratt's euphemistic phrasing, at 9 or 10 months and 110 to 130 pounds. Private customers pick up lamb at the Elihu booth at the Saratoga Farmers Market on Saturdays or make the drive through undulant emerald countryside to Easton, where, as Mary Pratt likes to say, "Our farm and barns are always open to visitors, by chance or by appointment."


On his 9-month birthday, in March, No. 2735 weighed about 120 pounds - large enough to push his way into the scrum for corn, still just a pip compared to his father, Max. (Elihu names its few mature rams, but its hundreds of ewes and lambs must be kept track of by number.)


"He's ready to go to market now," Mary Pratt said. "We always have a big demand at Easter and Passover."


Local customers


Over the coming weeks, before No. 2735's date with the slaughterhouse, Pratt found customers for him and some of the nine other lambs destined for the abatoir at the same time. (Unclaimed meat goes into the freezer for parceling out at the farmers market.)


Long-time customer Matthew Kopans of Saratoga Springs ordered a whole leg for his family's Passover meal.


"It's important to me to buy from a local provider, and I like knowing how the lamb was raised," Kopans said.


Parker at Chez Sophie and the chef at J.T. Baker's New Cuisine in Greenwich, another regular customer, also wanted portions of No. 2735, intending to feature a lamb course on their tasting menus.


On the morning of April 2, Bob Pratt delivered No. 2735 and some of his fellow spring 2007 lambs to Nichols Meat Processing in Altamont, which has handled Elihu lambs for the past several years. After owner Jeff Nichols processed the lambs (see related story), the carcasses hung for a week in a large walk-in cooler, allowing natural enzymes to tenderize the meat.


Lowell Carson took over on April 9. Before Carson started butchering, the carcass weighed 55 pounds. Working quickly, with a hand saw, band saw and knife, Carson broke down the meat as Mary Pratt had specified on what's known as a "cutting sheet."


When he was done, not even 20 minutes later, Elihu Farm Lamb No. 2735 was contained in 18 vacuum-sealed packages: ground lamb from cutting scraps; kidneys; heart, tongue and liver, packed together; two bone-in shoulder roasts; two packages of shanks; two full racks (eight ribs apiece); one pack with two rows of riblets; one bone-in whole leg; two half legs; and five loin chops. Elihu sells what it calls "handcrafted, artisanal lamb" at prices ranging from $6 per pound for bone-in shoulder to $11.50 per pound for racks, $13 per pound for loin chops.


Perhaps not wanting to know the answer, the Pratts never have figured out what it costs to raise each lamb, an expense boosted by the $75 fee per animal commanded by Nicols Meats for processing, butchering and packaging. When all of a single lamb's parts have been sold, the Pratts might net $300 - after almost a year's work.


"This farm is a money pit," Mary Pratt said. "Raising lambs is an incredibly labor-intensive process."


Different meals


To feed his Passover guests on April 19, Kopans gave the right hind leg of No. 2735 a long, slow braise with onions, tomatoes, carrots and rosemary, and served it with white beans.


"People asked for more, so that's always a good sign," Kopans said.


Chez Sophie served its portions on April 25 as part of a tasting menu.


At J.T. Baker's on May 4, chef-owner Jason Baker incorporated six preparations of lamb into a seven-course tasting menu that co-starred local wild ramps. He made a tiny burger of braised shoulder meat, paired lamb tartare with tuna bone marrow, stuffed lamb into ravioli with foie gras and blue cheese, and served lamb loin both raw, as paper-thin carpaccio with candied olives, and seared, with gelatin noodles made from venison stock and a caramel gastrique.


Back at Elihu Farm, Lamb No. 2735's twin sister, now 15 days from her first birthday, weighs almost 120 pounds. The Pratts have decided to keep her as breeding stock. Her number is 2736, and she should have her own lambs sometime next spring.


How lamb stacks up:


Lamb makes up but a fraction of Americans' meat diet: Per capita, we consume 45 times as much beef and poultry, 34 times more pork and 10 times as much fish as lamb annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


Nutritionally, lamb is comparable to beef: A 3-ounce serving of roasted leg of lamb contains 162 calories, 6.6 grams of fat (2.4 grams saturated), 76 grams of cholesterol and 24 grams of protein, according to government data.


Pick up a pound:


Elihu Farm sells its lamb from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays at the Saratoga Farmers Market, located at the High Rock Park pavilions on High Rock Avenue in Saratoga Springs. Cuts usually available include bone-in and boneless lamb roasts, chops, racks, steaks and stew and ground meat. Mutton chorizo, ground mutton and eggs from free-range chickens are also available. Prices range from $6 to $13 per pound for meat.





Steve Barnes can be reached at 454-5489 or by e-mail at sbarnes@timesunion.com. Visit his blog at http://blogs.timesunion.com/tablehopping.


ON THE WEB


A photo gallery of the lamb's life and a story about slaughtering are on http://timesunion.com.





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About this story





A Times Union reporter and photographer spent 11 months following Elihu Farm Lamb No. 2735 from birth to table, a project undertaken with the belief that animals intended for our consumption should be treated as humanely as possible, and that the most morally defensible approach to omnivorous eating is to acknowledge the reality of where our food comes from. While many Americans are embracing the idea of eating local, few have the opportunity to follow the source of their meat through its life cycle. Here's a look at one such animal.