Why you should care

Because you should know where your food is coming from.

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A pair of NPR-listening former Clevelanders, Kathy and Jeff Bielek, take a stroll around their “retirement farm” in Wooster, where some 40 sheep graze in lush fields that are quintessentially Ohioan when compared with the mega-ranches of the West. Small-scale enterprises like this one, which is average size by Ohio standards, dot the state’s rolling farmlands. But the Bieleks’ farm is hardly ordinary: Only a handful of breeders nationwide raise short-haired Katahdins, which have a unique resistance to parasites. Roger High, executive director of the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association, calls the deadly diseases carried by such internal worms and pests “the biggest struggle” facing American sheep.

The health of the lamb industry — and the availability of legal immigrant workers to work the flocks — is questionable at a time when the U.S. has an opportunity to expand its market share both locally and globally. Industry giant Australia is currently experiencing a shortage in sheep, as shepherds rebuild their flock following years of drought, choosing to shear them for wool rather than sell them for slaughter. American producers see an opening as a result. “We like to promote our lamb as being 10,000 miles fresher,” High says, “because it’s coming from right here.”

And it’s especially important in the land of the Buckeyes:

Ohio is the biggest lamb-producing state east of the Mississippi — with at least one sheep farm in each of its 88 counties.

Freeloading worms are just one problem that plague the domestic sheep industry, which has long played second fiddle to Australian exporters, whose climate and massive scale of production make their products cheaper than homegrown lambs. While farmers in general seem to benefit from looser regulations under President Donald Trump, they worry about his anti-trade rhetoric. “We really needed the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” High says, “but we need NAFTA even more.” Both trade deals are essential to exporting crops and livestock globally.

The administration’s anti-immigration talk is less of a problem for relatively small spreads in Ohio, notes High, than it is for larger ranches in Colorado, California and elsewhere out West. They’re seeing shortages of temporary migrant workers, who typically arrive legally under the H-2A visa program. Then there are those problems of a more biblical nature — namely, coyotes, domestic dogs, mountain lions and other predators that annually cull around 2 to 4 percent of a flock, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We’re a beef country. People are fixated: They raise what they grew up with.”

Jeff Bielek, sheep farmer in Wooster, Ohio

If farmers can capitalize, lamb may be ready to jump to a more prominent place in the American diet. Industry advocates argue that grass-fed, organic lamb from places like Ohio dovetails with the widespread (and growing) farm-to-table movement. Much of the increased demand for the tender meat has come from American Muslims — perhaps ironic considering that many in the Ohio farming community voted for Trump, whose travel bans would have limited immigrants from some Muslim-majority nations.

The biggest challenge is psychological. There is a long-standing American love affair with beef, even though its wildly fluctuating prices frequently bedevil producers. “We’re a beef country,” Jeff Bielek admits. “People are fixated: They raise what they grew up with. But it’s like how you can’t have the same job your father and grandfather had — you can’t go to the auto plant, you can’t go to the coal mine. Sheep is maybe a change where people will have to be more open-minded.”

PART OF A SPECIAL SERIES FROM OZY
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