Custom processor caters to diverse culinary traditions
By STEVE BROWN
WINLOCK, Wash. -- As a source of food and fiber, the U.S. sheep industry is riding high.
Feeder lamb prices have passed beef, pork and poultry, and demand for wool has seen healthy growth, said Clint Krebs, vice president of the American Sheep Industry Association. He reported on the past year at the recent Washington State Sheep Producers convention.
Beyond the commodity markets, some sheep producers have found success in nontraditional markets and marketing.
Carl Heitstuman, of C&J Livestock in Edgewood, Wash., has found an eager market for lambs, sheep and goats in the ethnic community.
Heitstuman doesn't raise the animals, but he gets them year-round by word of mouth and through brokers. His custom slaughter facility south of Seattle handles about 200 animals a week, more around holidays.
He got into the ethnic market by accident. "An Arab saw a lamb in the back of my pickup and followed me home. Now I'm up to my eyeballs in Arabs," he said.
Now he has customers from 83 countries, who "speak better English than we do. It's a rare person I can't understand."
Heitstuman has learned to adapt to the different traditions, such as naming ceremonies and the different holidays. And most eat it fresh: "They don't know what aged is."
The customer picks an animal and "argues for 20 minutes about the price," he passes ownership to the customer, then slaughters and processes according to the specific tradition. Orthodox Christians slaughter their own, as do 99 percent of Muslims, but some say, "I just want the meat. I'll say the prayers from here," he said.
Ethiopians save the bile and add it to old mutton. The bitter digestive fluid is a natural tenderizer, he said. They cook it with a lot of hot spices, "and you can't taste anything but fire."
Since 1980, C&J has sold 22,000 lambs, sheep and goats. As lamb prices have risen, "I've lost a lot of customers," he said. "But they'll eat mutton."
JTS Sheep Co. raises Romneys, which are a dual-purpose breed, with a focus on fiber. John and Toni Scholder said they produced 75 lambs out of their 39 bred ewes this year. They found ready markets for the lambs, selling many of them at auction and also direct to people "who want to raise their own," John Scholder said.
The Romney fleece, though, goes a different direction from most wool. Toni Scholder said the 6- to 7-inch-long fleece works best for hand-spinning -- "the finest of the long wools for spinning," she said.
Each fleece is held separately and is sold directly to hand-spinners at around $6 a pound. One New Mexico customer is a regular, usually requesting the wool from the same sheep year after year.
"We shear in December for a couple of reasons," she said. "There's no stress on the fleece, and it stays cleaner. Also we're able to observe the expectant mothers better."
John Scholder said the shorn ewes graze in the day and go in the barn at night.
"We've seen very few respiratory issues," he said. The breed thrives in southwestern Washington's cool, damp climate.
Shearing before the February lambing also eliminates the possibility of the ewes lying down and crushing the lambs that they otherwise might not feel through their heavy wool.