WINDHAM and NEW GLOUCESTER — Phil Webster gestures out to the rolling hills of Collyer Brook Farm in New Gloucester and points out a fuzzy line of white heading in the general direction of the barn.
“The lambs are all coming up over the hill,” he said. “Sometimes there will be a whole train of them.”
The thin line of animals marching in single file is part of a larger flock of 500 to 600 that Webster and his wife, Lisa, keep here on about 650 acres of leased land that is just steps away from the country’s first woolen mill. The sheep that grazed here during the American Revolution provided the wool blankets that kept patriots warm.
Soon, this pastureland may once again be filled with these gentle creatures and the distant sound of their soft bleating.
The Websters already have a healthy lamb operation at their home, North Star Sheep Farm in Windham, that supplies 14 New England Whole Foods stores, about a half dozen Maine restaurants and chefs in Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire with fresh, local lamb. But this leased land, a part of Pineland Farms, is part of a larger plan.
“We’ll never overgraze it,” Webster said. “We have a lot of good pasture to rotate. But we’ll eventually probably have 2,500 sheep here.”
And that’s not all.
Lisa Webster, who handles the all the business aspects of North Star Farm while her husband focuses on husbandry, envisions at least 10 other Maine farms developing their own lamb programs, with North Star’s help, and producing 500 to 1,000 lambs each.
“My personal goal, so that we have a thriving lamb industry in Maine, is 17,000 animals in the next 10 years for the state of Maine,” Lisa Webster said. “The market for lamb is concentrated between Boston and New York City – over 37 percent of the lamb consumed in the United States. That’s the number one region for lamb consumption in the United States.
“And the lamb isn’t raised here,” she said. “It’s raised in Colorado, Texas, northern California, New Zealand, Australia, Iceland. There’s no reason for us to be consuming lamb from Colorado and Texas.”
DEEP ROOTS IN FARMING
The Websters are both fifth-generation sheep farmers. They also run a landscape maintenance business that helped fund their sheep farm for the past 30 years. Until a year or so ago, they maintained a hobby flock of 85 ewes. They sold seed stock, showed in county fairs and raised a small amount of meat.
Then, a few years ago, they decided they had to come up with a growth plan to sustain their farm, which was founded in the 1700s, beyond their lifetimes for future generations. Today, they maintain a flock of about 1,200 ewes, scattered in groups of 50 to 100 among various buildings and pastures.
The Websters began selling their lamb to Whole Foods 15 months ago, more than doubled the order a year later, and by 2013, Lisa Webster projects the natural foods chain will be buying 5,200 of her lambs.
Chefs have also discovered North Star Farm lamb, and it is appearing on more and more New England menus. “I probably have done 400 lambs for my restaurant market this year already,” Webster said.
The Websters are not just numbers people. They know and care for their animals.
They know the difference between a “Hey, where’s my lunch?” bleat and a “Help, I’ve got my head stuck in the fence” bleat.
They’ve even been known to have a lamb who needed some extra care sleep with them. (It wore diapers.)
Webster does most of the hands-on labor at the farm, and his wife says it was hard on him making the transition to a larger meat operation. If you’re the one out in the barn all winter keeping the animals alive, making sure they’re getting milk and watching them grow, it can be difficult to then be the cause of their demise.
“He’s very, very soft-hearted,” she said. “That’s what makes him so good at what he does.”
Phil Webster, however, is a practical man when it comes to dispatching his flock.
“You have to do it,” he said. “But it is nice when you can give someone some really good lamb to eat. That gives you a lot of pleasure also.”
OUT TO PASTURE
The youngest lambs on the farm right now were born in June and are still out on pasture with their mothers. They’ll be sent to slaughter when they are 6 to 8 months old.
There are different breeds on the farm – Hampshire, Suffolk, Icelandic, and a commercial cross breed – and their lambing periods are staggered throughout the year. They vary in size, but their flavor comes mostly from what they’re fed.
All of North Star Farm’s pasture is certified organic, and the entire lamb program is well on its way to becoming certified. The animals stay on pasture in summer, and in winter they’re on grass hay. Each day, they are fed a small allotment of certified organic grains – a mixture of oats, barley, molasses and corn.
Lambs like routine. So Phil Webster does everything he can, even when the lambs are headed to slaughter, to keep their schedules normal and stress-free.
Every Friday, he gets up at 2 a.m. to drive lambs that are to be harvested for Whole Foods to Westminster, Vermont, a 442-mile round trip from Windham. They have to be there at 7 a.m., so he could make it easier on himself and go the night before, but Webster refuses to make the animals sit in a strange place overnight. He doesn’t even load them up until Friday.
When they arrive in Vermont, the lambs are put into a barn with fresh hay and water. Phil Webster believes this kind of attention to detail – lessening the animal’s stress, and the farm’s husbandry practices in general – are reflected in the taste of the meat.
A CUT ABOVE
Chefs agree. When Geoffroy Deconinck, the chef at Natalie’s at the Camden Harbour Inn, was looking for Maine lamb to serve at a James Beard dinner in New York City, he visited North Star Farm to see how the animals were raised. While he was there, he cooked and ate some lamb chops in the Websters’ kitchen.
“What sold me on Lisa’s lamb is the tenderness, the earthiness, that subtle – not overpowering – and delicate taste of the meat,” he said.
Deconinck ended up serving a duo of lamb belly confit (“I will always remember that sweet taste of hay”) and seared lamb loin with a seaweed sea salt he created especially for the lamb.
Other chefs, many of whom have also visited the farm, say they like the availability of the lamb compared to other locally-raised meats.
“A lot of them like to come out to the farm and even choose the one they want,” Phil Webster said. “I think it means more to them.”
The Well at Jordan Farm in Cape Elizabeth bought whole lamb this summer, grilling the best cuts over a wood fire and using the rest for sausage. On the menu last week was North Star grilled lamb with wilted chard, caramelized onions and basmati rice.
Chef Pete Sueltenfuss at Grace in Portland also buys whole lambs for a program he calls “Whole Beast Feast,” a multi-course meal that serves six to eight people and uses many different parts of the lamb. Two of his favorite dishes he’s made so far are a sumac and spruce grilled lamb chop with summer squash puree, and lamb neck-stuffed squash blossoms.
“The thing that sold it to me was their availability,” said Larry Matthews, chef/owner of Back Bay Grill in Portland, who is the latest chef to start buying whole lambs from the Websters. “They have a really good stock. Sometimes that’s the hardest part of using animals, is sourcing them out.”
Matthews typically makes a large batch of sausage, and serves a sausage with one or two chops for a “lamb two ways” dish.
“I will confit the shoulders and the neck in rendered lamb fat and use that in the pappardelle dish, which is always pretty popular,” he said.
Lisa Webster believes that as the benefits of lamb become better known and it becomes more mainstream, Americans will begin putting more lamb than beef on their plates. Lambs are easier to raise on pasture, so they’re more environmentally friendly (no GMO feed corn to worry about), and they are a leaner protein.
“It’s a dense protein,” Lisa Webster said. “A whole serving is 5 ounces of lamb instead of 12 ounces of beef.”
The Websters have switched entirely to lamb themselves, and eat it several times a week, usually grilled simply, medium rare, with a little salt and pepper and olive oil brushed on with a sprig of fresh rosemary.
The couple also like visiting the restaurants that buy their lamb to see what the chefs are doing with the meat.
Lisa Webster says her family’s 200 acres can sustain itself on 1,000 sheep. If she can do that in southern Maine, where costs are higher, she wonders, what are the possibilities for central and western Maine, Down East, and the County, where there’s a lot of open areas where farms are either no longer being used or they are raising beef and could add sheep to the mix?
“The potential is unlimited as far as what we can market,” she said. “We just have to put all the pieces together.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]