Why Jamison Farm Is a “A Napa Valley for Sheep”
How a former coal miner and his wife use the resources atop rolling Westmoreland County hills to produce the best lamb in the United States.
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The Jamisons started as high school sweethearts and now are the darlings of fine dining establishments throughout the country.
John and Sukey, high school sweethearts, moved back to Westmoreland County from Kansas City in 1975. The Jamison family, who first settled in western Pennsylvania in the 1760s and went into coal a century later, owned a mine in West Virginia; with coal prices rising in the mid-1970s, John returned home to help his uncle run the family business. He and Sukey bought a farm in Pleasant Unity because they were drawn to its stone house, which was built in 1798. But it also had a barn. Sukey bought six ewes and a 14-year-old ram. “We didn’t know anything about anything. No way. It was all new to us,” Sukey says.
During the first decade, the Jamisons sold wool as supplemental income. When John was laid off from another coal company in 1985, he and Sukey decided to go full-time into the lamb trade; that’s when they purchased their property in Unity.
Sukey had been working as a caterer, often using her own lamb as part of the spread. “When it came to deciding between meat production and wool production, I already knew that the meat was really good,” she says.
They planned on selling their lamb on the merits of its flavor, something that was uncommon at the time. There wasn’t a market for direct sales in Pittsburgh, so John, who’d long been fascinated with mail-order businesses, figured that might be the way to go; Omaha Steaks served as a model. He put an advertisement in Smithsonian Magazine, thinking that wealthy Park Avenue museum goers would want to order it. They didn’t.
A one-inch notice in the back of the New Yorker offering one leg and six chops for $65 was more effective. Orders started to slowly roll in. Jamison lamb caught the fancy of New York home-cooking gourmands and a handful of food writers, including the food talk show host Joan Hamburg, who became smitten with Sukey’s lamb stew. “I would make my own boxes. We’d get cardboard and styrofoam pieces. It was ridiculous,” says Sukey, who still handles all the ordering and shipping, albeit with much more proficiency.
Restaurants still weren’t buying because they felt Jamison’s grass-fed lamb was too small. In 1988, when the Jamisons did a benefit for Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh at LeMont in Mount Washington, that changed. An assemblage of seven of the best chefs in the country were there, one being Jean-Louis Palladin, chef of the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., and widely considered one of the most influential French chefs in the United States.
“Jean-Louis bought from us May 27 that year. We still have the original order,” Jamison says.
They hand-delivered two lambs to his restaurant. Palladin was struck by how much the lamb resembled the flavor and texture of meat raised in Sisteron, France — quality that, at the time, was impossible to come by in the United States. “He took the lambs off my shoulder, put it on his workbench and started crying,” Jamison says. “[He said], how big do you want to get?”