Re-Inventing the Appalachian Shepherd

Final Report for ENE98-045

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 1998: $6,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $13,218.06
Region: Northeast
State: West Virginia
Project Leader:
Tom McConnell
West Virginia University
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Project Information


Responding to fact that, for central Appalachia, the 100-year decline of the ewe numbers is now approaching a critical level even though the market has never been more promising, this educational program of conferences and field trips, “Re-inventing the Appalachian Shepherd,” was developed and delivered. The program included many field trips and two major regional conferences and was delivered from September 1, 1999 through January 31, 2003.

Field trip destinations included southeastern Ohio, New Holland, Pennsylvania, and the northern Corn Belt. The two conferences were held in Morgantown, WV. The first conference served as a regional research update and the program emphasized production efficiency. The second concentrated on marketing, including perspectives from the national, regional, and local levels.

Project Objectives:

The objectives of this proposal included but were not limited to the following.

1. To help define an economically viable and important agricultural unit.

2. To increase, develop, and expose the regional sheep faculty, concentrating on expertise from Ohio State, Virginia Tech, and Penn State.

3. To enhance the regional concept of a sheep producing area.

4. To expose the producers to many different management concepts through examples presented by the producers who are making them work.


In an attempt to re-educate many of the existing shepherds and the professional staff that serves them, West Virginia University set out to expose many shepherds to other animal operations that had attained some degree of efficiency by exploiting or specializing in some aspect of the production process that has allowed them to become sustainable. The hope was that Appalachian shepherds could exploit their grass resources, location, and available farm land to achieve similar results.

The idea as expressed in the original proposal was for the producers to gain new ideas by participating in the series of field trips in two ways. First, they would experience the intended educational objective--by learning about a feedlot or some other enterprise new to them--and second, they would interact with the other attendees. This interaction would produce opinions, facts, fun, and most important, a format in which a shepherd could consider and evaluate the information as it relates to a shepherding operation, family, or philosophy.

A couple of problems emerged almost immediately. Very few farmers and professionals bought into the theory that our sheep industry needed revamping. They were mostly content to witness its death. They used coyotes, internal parasites, and old age as reasons for the enterprise fading away. This was proved in a shepherds' survey conducted earlier. So participation in the field-trip alternative was proving to be too light to schedule. I felt we needed to bring the group together to assess where the industry was headed and what the industry could do to exploit the tremendous market opportunities.

At the same time,it was becoming apparent that the sheep enthusiasts in the regional research and extension community were diminishing to a point that most institutions didn’t employ a sheep specialist; most research was done in a fragmented format that failed to address the total sheep community, giving way to strict disciplines of study and fitting the shepherds' needs into the industry where they could.

Positively, we found there are a very active research components at Ohio State, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia University that do pertain to various parts of the sheep industry. The collective sheep research and shepherd support programs needed focus. This is where the focus of the project reported here was amended. The idea was then to gather the shepherds, researchers, extension agents and specialists, industry support staff, and some administrators to teach and learn about the sheep business in western Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, southeastern Ohio, and West Virginia. The intent was to use this gathering to compile all the regional research findings into a curriculum that would be amended by local expertise and would offer some national issues or topics. This would serve to teach the shepherds and their service professionals while the interaction throughout the conference would illuminate the university and industry personnel about the research and service needs of the region.

Re-inventing the Appalachian shepherd is an unattainable goal. The notion is silly. I did hope the title would suggest that maybe a few leader shepherds and some educators would be exposed to some research data and successful long-term management techniques that could be woven into their accepted management protocol and begin to change the way shepherds make decisions and take action. I feel very strongly that animal and forage operations will be well served by adding some sheep or goats to the mix. And our sparse population and rough terrain dictates most of our farms be livestock and forages. So, improving the quality of the information base for this region pertaining to sheep would ultimately enhance the sustainability of the central Appalachian family farms.

Educational Approach

Educational approach:


  • We are presently organizing lamb pools to access distant regional markets.

    We have conducted five state cost per pound of production study.

    We are completing a third predator survey.

No milestones

Performance Target Outcomes

Activities for farmers conducted by service providers:


We acquainted 250 producers and researchers with the sheep idustry of central Appalachia. The producers learned through field trips and workshops of the potential for raising and marketing sheep and the type and quality of research being conducted by the land grant institutions of the area. The researchers and allied businesses learned of the needs for research and services of the farmer group. The first workshop concentrated on production efficiency and the second exposed farmers to the national market trends in the local and regional market outlets.

Of the 250 participants involved in the four workshops, two conferences and four field trips, ten agents and twenty producers have enhanced their understanding of production efficiency and market access. This project pre-dates the performance target and milestone format. My goal was to introduce the above mentioned audience to the fact that there is a new world of opportunity and challenge facing them. The training was intended to provide the facts necessary for them to rethink their management paradigm where they can exploit the new information into a program that allows the sheep enterprise to contribute to the welfare of the farm family.

Project Outcomes

1)We heard from the sheep experts from the universities in the region and nationally about where the sheep industry is headed and how we might get there. We learned that there is a very dedicated and bright land-grant research community in the region that is conducting research in an attempt to help shepherds. We learned that often this research is somewhat misguided and requires too many inputs to benefit the Appalachian shepherd. We learned there is indeed a clash between that new knowledge and conservative principals that exploit the inherent ability of the ewe to respond to management and selection. We heard from a shepherd who has selected for twinning for twenty-five years and now has a 250 percent lamb crop annually. Many of us learned that we do have a forage base in central Appalachia that will enable us to produce lamb very competitively. One shepherd from south-eastern Ohio reported a cost per unit of production of $ .19 per pound of lamb. We learned how many intelligent and creative shepherds are combining the sheep advantage and the grass and rain resource to make a profit, and these profits that will allow shepherds to raise their families on the land with a lifestyle that provides amenities like are found in families with town jobs.

2)We learned that the American Sheep Industry Association is working very hard and creatively to place our product in the minds of new generations of epicureans by using clever and well placed advertisements. We learned that there are 1.5 million lamb eaters entering the United States every year and our market advantage is getting stronger. We learned that the industry really has not embraced the concept of carcass efficiency and usefulness to the restaurant market. Many farmers learned of the great divide between the show ring and the “real” operations. The industry is ignoring the strong market of the east, as well as, its growth. We learned that the goat industry has great potential for our central Appalachian farm families.

3)We learned that the lambs we produce here are suitable and actually very well received in the New Holland, PA market which is the largest in the east. We learned that a good lamb no matter the size will sell in that market. This means our grass fattened 120-pound lambs, too. This was somewhat a re-education epiphany for the members of the last field trip, because we had been taught that only the small short-wool lambs brought the top dollar in New Holland. We learned that many from our region already use that market but the large majority don't. We learned that a market that is 6 to 8 hours away from many of our lamb producers is the guide for the entire marketing structure in the east, and many more central Appalachian lambs, ultimately, end up there than most of us thought.

4) We have seen that it will be possible, and probably necessary, to pool some lambs in our region for marketing in the stronger markets.

5) This series of educational events has served to better define the need for design for a regional shepherd education and support system, preferably a system where universities can help the producers and where the marketing can be coordinated to meet the eastern demand. This regional consortium would strive to develop the same political clout as is enjoyed by some of the larger states.

6)We learned that there is considerable interest in small ruminants even though there is a growing predator problem. It is believed by many that there will have to be a new Appalachian shepherd developed before the small ruminant can play a more significant role in sustaining farm families. We started the process with this educational effort; this is just the beginning.

Potential Contributions

The project did not accomplish what was proposed, but it did accomplish other goals:

a) Gathered sheep researchers and shepherd education staff from region to begin work toward coordinated sheep research agenda and program delivery system.

b) Learned from shepherds how they feel about marketing and what they need to know about lamb marketing.

c) Served to start regional shepherd leadership base and consortium.

d) Started developing a cooperative lamb marketing program.

Future Recommendations

The next activity like this should include doing case studies of a small group of farmers at an initial meeting and track their progress during the training and subsequent programs.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.