Thursday, April 24, 2014
North Star Sheep Farm, a sprawling 200-acre sheep farm in Windham, Maine was founded in 1997, when Phillip and Lisa Webster purchased the Stevens farm to protect it from commercial development. The Stevens family cleared the acreage in the 1760s and the farm has maintained its status as a working farm since the beginning.
Fifth-generation sheep producers, the Websters have been selling registered sheep breeding stock since 1991. By 2007 they had built up their flock of Hampshire sheep to 150 ewes and were selling 12 – 20 a year for $1000 - $5000/head for show and seed stock animals with the remaining lambs being sold off the farm as freezer lambs.
Like many farmers, the Websters have nonfarm jobs to help pay the farm bills. PR Landscaping, is their successful landscaping company founded in 1975.
Determined to find a way for the farm to sustain itself, and committing to the sheep industry they took to the road and began looking at operations – what worked, what didn’t – and settled on the retail lamb business. According to Lisa, it was the most logical choice to cover the farm’s $100 – 150K operating expenses and provide an income.
“The Northeast is the largest region of the country in regards to lamb consumption with 134 million dollars in annual sales of fresh lamb meat, “ said Lisa Webster. “While 38% of the sales are in the Northeast, nearly half of the lamb sold is raised west of the Mississippi and the other 50% is imported. With New England seeking new ways to provide food close to home, lamb is a logical choice for our farm.”
The Websters settled on Suffolks to build rams and expand the flock. They found 30 large frame Suffolk ewes north of Bozeman, Montana. “ The ewes were grazing at the base of a mountain on natural grasses,” said Lisa Webster. “I knew the sheep would be very happy on the rolling pastureland of southern Maine.”
The Websters hit the road again, this time with their vapor tank to collect frozen semen from farms that bred Suffolks in the 1970s – 80s. Once home, they created stud rams with the help of both local and nationally known reproduction specialists.
To read about the farm's success in recent years, check out Meredith Goad's piece on Phil and Lisa Webster from this past August.
History of Sheep in New England courtesy of Lisa Webster
Sheep were brought to New England in the 1600s with our first settlers. In 1860 there were 1.5 million sheep in New England. The Sheep industry was thriving until the late 1800s with the migration of agriculture to the Midwestern states. During the first half of the 20th century our woolen mills and related industries faded away with the reduction for the sheep inventory and by the 1950s sheep no longer dotted the rural landscape and islands of Maine. “It is time to look at the success of sheep farming in the past, apply modern husbandry practices to our flocks, educate our shepherds and rebuild the sheep industry from the smallest producer to larger flocks such as ours for the health and well-being of Maine farms, our sheep industry and our consumers," said Lisa.
The Future of Sheep Farming in New England
The 2011 Census of Agriculture, is reason for encouragement to small sheep operations in the United States raising fewer than 100 head. It states, though sheep numbers have steadily declined since the 1960’s, recent years have experienced some periods of growth with further growth of the industry relaying on smaller operations tapping into local niche markets for lamb and mutton, wool, and dairy products.
In October, 2012 the American Sheep Industry reported the lamb market for farmers and ranchers nationwide had fallen to well below half of 2011’s record high prices. That, combined with the widespread drought and the escalating cost of feedstuffs, put sheep producers in a really difficult situation. However, according to Lisa during the spring of 2012 the lamb market was stable in Maine. “The extreme highs and lows of the national pricing helps reinforce our belief that raising lamb closer to the market is a great choice for New England”.
Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.
When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.
In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.