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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Top: Sukey Jamison is a master at showcasing the farm’s lamb.
Jamison tends his flock, typically 300 to 400 lambs at any given time, with the help of a pair of sometimes-overeager border collies. He’ll bring about 3,000 to slaughter in a typical year.
Jamison was an early adopter of a practice of land management called Intensive Rotational Grazing, a method of raising lamb pioneered in the 1950s by the French biochemist and farmer André Voisin. The quality and quantity of the grass grown with Intensive Rotational Grazing is unparalleled. Jamison believes that the hills of western Pennsylvania are particularly well-suited for this form of animal husbandry. “It’s the perfect climate for grass production,” he says. “It’s like Napa Valley for sheep.”
Rather than graze willy-nilly or linger lazily in a feedlot, Jamison lamb spend a couple of days in enclosed pastures of about 5 acres before they are walked to another plot on the farm. They devour the grass, exposing nitrogen-fixing legumes, which, along with the lambs’ manure, feeds the soil, setting the stage for regrowth. “We have people who ask us what we plant for our grasses. Well, nothing. It grows,” says Sukey.
The lamb, which live outside all year but have access to cover in the winter, get a lot of exercise, too; walking the hills of Westmoreland County could be a new workout trend. “When you raise them like this instead of a feedlot, the muscle tone is much better. In a feedlot, they get fat too quickly and the meat is mushy. If you’re using some grain, that’s ok, but if they don’t have access to the roughage, their stomachs don’t work correctly. That’s when they get greasy,” Jamison says.
When the lambs are between 6 and 8 months old, they’re brought to the slaughterhouse. The Jamisons bought their own USDA-certified processing plant in 1994. It’s a nondescript grey building at the long end of a gravel driveway not far from their farm. In 2005, the Jamison plant was the first slaughterhouse and farm in the United States to be recognized as Certified Humane, meaning they adhere to a rigorous set of guidelines for how lamb are treated.
The whole slaughtering process takes less than 5 minutes. The most they’ve done in a day is 80, but in a typical day they process closer to 60.
While the slaughter is fast, the cooldown is deliberately slow. This, they owe to Julia Child. The Jamisons developed a deep, and honest, friendship with the culinary icon and would send her legs of lamb for her birthday and for Easter. She called to tell them the leg they sent shortly after opening the plant was too tough. The Jamisons consulted Dr. Ed Mills, a professor of Meat Science at Penn State, who said they were slaughtering and butchering the meat correctly but they weren’t processing right.
If a freshly slaughtered animal goes directly into cold refrigeration, the muscles will seize up and toughen. Mills told them to slow down. They listened. Child continued to eat Jamison lamb and correspond with John and Sukey until she died in 2004.