Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Shepherds aim to put 'Kentucky spring lamb' back on U.S. menus and truly reclaim Appalachian strip-mined land

Lester Brashear is one of 300 sheep farmers in southeastern Kentucky who are hoping to use reclaimed strip mines to create a new market for Kentucky spring lamb. (Photos by Sam Adams, The Mountain Eagle)

Small ruminants are domesticated animals like sheep and goats; they also might be the answer to restoring productivity to strip-mined Appalachian lands that once were forests, reports Sam Adams of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky.. Adams reports on Lester Brashear, "a retired coal miner and former biomedical equipment technician, and his brother, Larry, and his cousin Patrick Angel, who holds a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in forestry and a doctorate in soil science, and has farmed sheep for 43 years. The three formed the Southeast Kentucky Sheep Producers Association, which now boasts about 300 members across 56 counties in Appalachian Kentucky."

A curious ewe lamb peeks out.
(Photo by Sam Adams, The Mountain Eagle)
SEKSPA is working to rebuild some of the region's agricultural legacy. Adams explains, Angel, who is retired from the federal Office of Surface Mining Regulation and Enforcement, "called it a 'tragedy' that strip mines were reclaimed as grassland instead of forest, and said there are now about 750,000 acres of grassland in Appalachian Kentucky that used to be forests," Adams reports. "Only a fraction of that land has ever been used for agriculture, because even though some farmers have placed cattle and horses on strip mines, much of the land is too steep for large animals, and the ground dries out too quickly to support large-scale grazing of that size livestock."

That's where nimble-footed lambs and sheep come in handy. Angel explained, "The only way to correct that is by reforesting and/or doing large-scale, small-ruminant grazing as it's done in the Rockies, in the Carpathians in Central Europe." Adams reports, "And, he said, there is historical precedence for that working in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky. . . . It used to be known for lamb. He said customers at 'five-star, white-tablecloth restaurants' in New York, Boston and up and down the eastern seaboard depended on the lamb from this region from the 1880s until just after World War II. . . . 'At the top of the menu, you could see the three words "Kentucky spring lamb" and Eastern Kentucky was the supplier of Kentucky Spring Lamb,'" Angel said.

Eastern Kentucky's Cumberland Plateau can be divided into four sections,
increasingly mountainous the farther southeast. (University of Kentucky map)
Lester Brashear, of Letcher County, "has now obtained a trademark on a logo on behalf of the SEKSPA that capitalizes on the Kentucky spring lamb name," Adams reports. "The trademark will be on the packaging of lamb sold by members of the association, and members of the association must be in the 56 counties in Eastern Kentucky. Brashear said that most of the 'lamb' sold in supermarkets comes from Australia and is actually mutton."

What's the difference between lamb and mutton? Brashear explains: "A sheep 14 months or younger is a lamb, and after that, they become a hogget, and then after that, they become a sheep or a mutton." Adams adds, "Brashear explained that people who aren't used to the meat . . . assume that they won't like lamb because they had mutton and didn't like it. . . . SEKSPA members have been "cooking lamb at trainings and meetings across the region to give people a taste of what they've been missing. . . .This year, they plan to put a large flock of sheep on a strip mine in Perry County to see how it will fare. . . . . Both say if it works, it could give new life to strip mines that don't have trees and show other farmers they can make money from the practice."

No comments: