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.
John and Sukey Jamison raise lamb on 212 acres of what John calls the “Napa Valley for sheep.”
John Jamison almost always has grass on his mind.
“At one time I was even on the board of an organization called Project Grass. That sounds like a 1960’s hippie thing,” he says. “It isn’t.”
Good grass is the reason the house at Jamison Farm — nestled in a nook within 212 acres of rolling hills in Unity, Westmoreland County — is decorated with signed photographs, menus and letters from the deities of the American culinary world: Julia Child, Alice Waters, Daniel Boulud, Dan Barber, Wolfgang Puck, Jean-Louis Palladin. All of them, at one point, declared Jamison lamb the best lamb in the United States.
“He’s a velvet hammer revolutionary,” says Barber of Jamison. “He changed the way a lot of people thought about raising lamb.”
Barber is widely considered to be the preeminent thought-leader among chefs who value ingredients for both their extraordinary flavor and their ecological significance. He could fill a wheelbarrow with James Beard and other awards he’s won for himself and his restaurants, Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
Like most of the prime lamb regions in the world, it’s hilly and wet at Jamison Farm. “It’s cause and effect … Here, all you can do is raise sheep. Guys around here will try to grow corn and other stuff, but it’s very difficult and dangerous. But we can put sheep on here and make money,” Jamison says.
Resources in this part of western Pennsylvania have always been extracted the hard way. Coal was deep mined and then stripped from the hills by the trainful. Although the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom — and the parade of construction, heavy machinery and water tanks that come with it — is more prominent in other parts of the region such as Greene County (home of Pittsburgh’s other legendary lamb producer, Elysian Fields), there are five “shallow” wells on the Jamison property.
That helps them financially — they don’t have to pay for the gas that heats the house, among other things — but Jamison says it doesn’t affect the flavor of the lamb. He says it’s what’s on top of the ground, not what’s 2,000 feet below, that matters. This means that, in spring, the lambs feast on early season garlic-chives and pick up subtle allium notes. Going into the summer, the fields are blossoming with wildflowers and wild anise, which promote exquisite herbaceous undertones. Fall brings nutrient-dense fescue that helps the lambs fatten up for winter, and they also eat Queen Anne’s lace, a relative of the carrot, which sweetens the meat.
Sukey Jamison, 70, knows how to showcase her lamb as well as anyone. Her signature plate of lamb-three-ways demonstrates how she has become a master at drawing out the best in each part of the meat she and her husband have raised for more than four decades: shank, braised for hours in tomato stock, its meat, fat and connective tissue melding into heavenly ragu with the braising vegetables; sirloin, grilled to reveal the lamb’s grassy undertones, which on this occasion reflect springtime chive; and a rack of lamb, the jewel cut, a sweet, tender and succulent showcase of the hills that the lamb once walked. Her favorite cut is tenderloin, simply seasoned with salt, pepper and olive oil, seared for seconds on each side in a red-hot, cast-iron skillet. “That’s nature’s fast food right there,” she says.
Seared lamb tenderloin is just about the last thing most people in the United States would associate with fast food.
Throughout much of the world, sheep are prized as a mainstay meat. In the United States, however, its consumption is small potatoes compared to the mountains of chicken, beef and pork consumed. With the farm-to-table movement at the forefront of food talk, with grass-fed beef becoming a buzzword and with a good number of diners becoming more open-minded, one might think we’d eat more lamb. We’re actually eating less than ever before. According to the North American Meat Institute, Americans ate 0.7 pounds of lamb per person in 2014 as compared to 1.1 pounds in 2008 (as per USDA) and 4.5 in the 1960s. By comparison, the average American diner ate 84.6 pounds of chicken and 54.2 pounds of beef in 2014. According to the trade group American Lamb, 33 percent of people in the United States have never even tried lamb.
“Most of the meat we eat in this country isn’t called the same name as the animal, except for lamb. You say lamb, and you’re seeing this white lamb over here. You’re going to eat a pig? No. You’re going to eat pork. Are you going to eat a cow? No. You’re going to eat beef. Chickens? Chickens aren’t adorable,” says Sukey.
It used to be that mutton — lamb slaughtered after the animal is a year old — was what was on the menu. Lamb traditionally is a dual-product animal; first we use it for its wool and then later for its meat. But mutton tends to have a strong flavor that isn’t appealing to conventional American palates. Although the vast majority of sheep sold for the consumption in the United States now is lamb younger than a year old, not mutton, its reputation as a gamey, strong meat remains.
Conversely, much of the commercial lamb produced in places such as Colorado is grain-fed, rendering it less distinct in flavor, yet more expensive than, beef. “In grain-based Colorado lamb, they want a big fat cover with a dumbed-down flavor. Lamb on grain is not that interesting at all,” says Barber.
Barber says there is less compelling need to raise lamb in the United States, too. “Most cultures adopted lamb and sheep because of grazing. It’s an efficient way to use the landscape. In America, we weren’t forced into that need. We had so much land and resources … that allowed us to focus on other meats,” says Barber.
Yet it’s precisely because of geography — the hills, elevation, rainfall and, most importantly, the grasses of western Pennsylvania — that Jamison lamb is what it is.
“It’s special because of where you are. You can taste the difference in a grass-based system. This is what lamb is supposed to taste like,” says Barber.
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?”
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.
A signed menu from Jean-Louis Palladin, the D.C. chef who put the Jamisons on the map.
The Jamisons and their lamb got big — really big — in gourmet circles after Palladin asked them how big they wanted to get. But that growth was limited for a long time to James Beard-winning and Michelin star restaurants outside of Pittsburgh (as well as their mail-order home delivery business). It remains a go-to for a good number of praiseworthy restaurants; in recent weeks, for example, the Jamisons have shipped their lamb to Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Miller Union and Bacchanalia in Atlanta, and Zaytinya in D.C.
Now, finally, it’s making inroads in Pittsburgh, too. Morcilla, Legume Bistro, Union Standard, Superior Motors, The Porch, Cafe Carnegie, The Vandal and Muddy Waters Oyster Bar (where their daughter, Eliza, is executive chef) all feature Jamison lamb.
At Whitfield, the restaurant at Ace Hotel in East Liberty, executive chef Bethany Zozula and butcher Steve Beachy break down a whole lamb every other week. “It tastes like lamb should taste. And the flavor changes throughout the year,” says Zozula.
In June, Zozula and Sukey paired up for Sharing Knives, Whitfield’s ongoing collaborative chef series. On the menu was lamb liver mousse with red wine jelly and Sukey’s legendary lamb-three-ways. “She’s amazing. I did most of the cooking, but she was the one who had all the ideas. I wasn’t expecting her to be so excited about everything,” Zozula says.
The Jamisons started to expand their reach in an unexpected way, too: Earlier this year, they partnered with Sysco, the conglomerate popularly known for delivering industrialized, frozen and pre-prepared food. “It’s touching smaller restaurants that wouldn’t think they could buy from us, and that’s good,” says Sukey. “Now, all they have to do is tack it onto their order.”
Jamison lamb also is available at the East End Food Co-Op and via Soergels through a meat CSA. Still, it’s the personal touch that keeps chefs coming back to the couple. “You can pick up the phone and talk to the owner, and that person understands everything about the life of the animal to the day they ship it to you. That’s a rare occasion in the restaurant business,” says Justin Severino, executive chef and co-owner of Cure and Morcilla.
The Jamisons now are looking toward the future. At 71 and 70, they don’t show any signs of slowing down, but nothing lasts forever. They’ve just released a book, “Coyotes in the Pasture & Wolves at the Door,” that chronicles their storied career and is full of photos and Sukey’s time-tested recipes.
More than anything, though, it’s the influence they’ve had on the future of lamb ranching that might have the most significant impact. Over the years, hundreds of people have toured the farm and some have gone on to run their own ranches. “They don’t get the credit they deserve. They’ve influenced a generation of farmers and inspired a ton of people throughout the country,” says Barber. “Hedonistic pleasure is often at the expense of something. What the Jamisons prove is that ecological stewardship and truly great flavor are part of the same subject.”