Oftentimes a final report is just that-the conclusion of many hours of hard work and some important conclusions. For this project I think I can safely say that the end is the beginning. The Scott County Hair Sheep Association continues to grow and flourish, and the SARE PDP project provided the supportive structure to make so many things happen.
In the fall of 2002 I decided to apply for a PDP grant with the goal of encouraging producers and those who work with producers to become more familiar with raising hair sheep. Interest in hair sheep was increasing within Scott County and the 25-30 producers needed consistent information. While hair sheep are more parasite resistant, they are not parasite free and producers needed to know how to recognize and treat parasite as well as learn how to prevent them. Because many were first time sheep producers there were questions about lambing, nutrition, vaccinations and other issues from fencing to minerals.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
I’ve always had a long range goal of providing alternative agricultural opportunities to tobacco farmers, but never did I anticipate the rapid growth and acceptance of hair sheep. From the group of 30 or so producers with about 600 ewes working together in 2002 the Scott County Hair Sheep Association now numbers over 150 members, representing better than 5,000 breeding ewes. A partnership with a regional grocery chain, Food City, which wants 10,000 lambs per year means that every lamb born which meets the supermarket’s criteria is SOLD at birth. Food City buys the whole carcass, unheard of in most retail channels.
The SARE PDP grant provided training for veterinarians, Extension agents, producers, farm store owners and others. It meant that for the first time ever the VA Tech Beginning Shepherd’s Workshop was held in southwest Virginia as well as on the university campus. It was so successful that it will be held again this year in Abingdon, Virginia. Attendees included extension personnel as well as producers. The grant sent producers to McComb, Mississippi for the annual Katahdin Hair Sheep International meeting. Here a connection was made with the Texas Hair Sheep Association and now a local shepherd has a source for selling hair sheep hides. She has a business which, when full production is reached, can provide a very sustainable livelihood. The monies sent extension personnel and producer teachers to the highly acclaimed Lamb 509 course offered at Ohio State University. During the intense three day course, participants learned how to purchase and process a whole lamb, as well as how to fabricate it and market it. This was an extraordinary experience for those who attended and provided valuable information should the Association need to search out alternative markets.
During the first summer of the grant period six regional high school culinary teachers (from TN and VA) attended a course taught by a noted local chef on lamb preparation. Most had never tasted lamb before, and many are now teaching lamb preparation in their classrooms. The program director has included lamb on many of his menus.
There was also a training session lead by Susan Schoenian to train participants about parasite control, including FAMACHA. When this grant was first proposed FAMACHA was not even known amoung the producers. Today a large percentage are using it as a tool for parasite management.
The final workshop program was held in Tennessee to attract some of the many new Tennessee producers. The program was co-sponsored by TN Cooperative Extension and featured some excellent speakers. Attendees included a veterinarian, Extension personnel and producers, old and new. After a delicious lamb lunch and a day full of educational sessions, the day concluded with a trip to the farm of Chris Wilson, a sizeable Katahdin breeder, for some hands on training and FAMACHA training.
But what has happened, as I stated earlier is just the beginning. A visit with Sharron Quisenberry, Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech last January has resulted in the formation of a broad task force at Virginia Tech to assist with the development of the hair sheep project. Members represent food science, farm accouting, research, animal science, and extension. A strong commitment has been made to designing and implementing further hair sheep research at the Glade Spring Research Center in Abingdon, VA. A partnership is being developed with a Kingsport, Tennessee financial institution, with the hope that they will purchase the 200 ewes needed for the research station.
The President and CEO of Food City, Steve Smith, is pleased with the product, but just wants “more lambs”. Producers know, in advance how musch they are to be paid. This project has the potential to have a very positive impact on the farm economies of southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee.
It is not just producers who are benefiting from the hair sheep project. Two of the local farm stores now carry and sell lamb feed. Veterinarians have more clients. Fencing suppliers have new business.
SARE’s support of the hair sheep project, first through a producer grant, and later through the PDP grant provided the credibility necessary to move the project forward. SARE was the first organization asked to provide support, and the willingness to so when we had no track record will always be remembered. Producers who are now seeing a profit on their farms are appreciative, even though many have never heard of SARE. SARE has contributed greatly to the sustainability of many regional producers. On behalf of the producer members of the Scott County Hair Sheep Association, thank you.