Spring Lambs

Although still not a popular meat with Americans, lamb can be economical and a staple for locavores
Lambs born in March on Pam and Charlie Boyer's Eagle Point ranch are ready for slaughter in winter and sold by the whole or half animal.Bob Pennell

Pam and Charlie Boyer's pastures were more accepting of lamb than their palates when the couple decided to farm 60 acres outside Eagle Point.

Taking a business-savvy stance, the Boyers determined that sheep — born in higher numbers and younger at slaughter — yield more money per acre than cattle. But nearly two decades later, a taste for lamb has trumped the couple's taste for beef.

If you go

What: Jackson County Spring Fair and auction of sheep, rabbits and poultry raised by members of 4-H and Future Farmers of America. Admission is free.

When: Friday, June 4, starting at 4 p.m.; gates open at 8 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, June 5-6; auction begins at 2 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Jackson County Fairgrounds and Expo Park, 1 Peninger Road, Central Point

For more information: See the website www.jacfairgrounds.com or call 541-774-8270.

"Beef has no flavor, really," says Pam Boyer, 64. "And lamb has a flavor.

"I use it in tacos, spaghetti sauce — anywhere you would use hamburger."

Although nationwide consumption of lamb in 2008 averaged just 1 pound per person annually compared with 61 pounds of beef, it appears more Americans are warming up to the smaller grazers.

"There's good ways of cooking it now," says Boyer.

Farmers across the country say lamb's image is benefitting from the trend toward eating more local foods while chefs are looking to lamb as a way to challenge their creativity. And if professional and home cooks alike use lesser-known cuts, such as neck and belly, the meat can fit into the tightest grocery budgets.

Buying a whole or half-animal from the Boyers' Long Mountain Land and Livestock puts the total cost per pound at about $3.80, which includes slaughter and butchering fees. Each year, Long Mountain sells about 25 to 30 lambs directly to customers between Portland and California and just a handful to livestock brokers.

"I can afford to sell them for less per pound," says Charlie Boyer, 63.

For the past few years, the Boyers have steadily signed additional customers, usually after they taste the pasture-raised meat at an established buyer's barbecue. The Agate Road ranch is not organic, and the Boyers do apply some herbicides and chemical fertilizer, but the lambs' 9- to 10-month life cycle is otherwise all natural, they say.

"We eat these animals, too," says Pam Boyer.

Admittedly, lamb's distinctive flavor can be a turn-off for some — one-third of Americans have never even tried it, The Associated Press reported. But flavor largely is determined by breed and the animals' diets, says Boyer. Making a culinary statement with a small portion is one advantage of cooking lamb.

This weekend's Jackson County Spring Fair provides a taste of barbecued lamb and opportunity to purchase animals from members of local 4-H and Future Farmers of America clubs. Meat cases at Sherm's Thunderbird Market and Food 4 Less in Medford will be stocked with local lamb procured at the fair starting Thursday, June 10.

Unlike lambs raised for show, the Boyers' are born in March, when new grass can support the larger flock, and are ready for slaughter in December or January. Call 541-826-9873.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

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