The Problem With Spring Lamb

The centerpiece of spring's religious holidays is one of the most sustainable choices at the butcher—just not at this time of year.

(Photo: Shady Brook Sheep/Flickr)

Apr 11, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

For many Americans, lamb is as synonymous with the spring celebrations of Easter and Passover as turkey is with Thanksgiving. Lamb’s culinary role in these celebrations is not too difficult to understand: The Israelites dined on lamb the night God led them away from the threat of a paranoid Egyptian pharaoh; Christians add to that lamb’s symbolic association with the crucified and resurrected Christ.

What’s more difficult to understand is why sustainability-conscious Americans continue to demand lamb in the early spring. Local cuts of sustainably raised American lamb are hard to find this time of year. That's because lambs are born in the early spring, gaining a half pound to a pound per week on green grass all summer. Lamb raised this way isn't ready for consumption until late summer or early fall.

Sure, you can readily find leg of lamb in April, but at an operation like Georgia's Shady Brook Farm, it will probably weigh as much as if not more than this year's new lambs. If you care about sustainability, says proprietor Jennif Chandler, that means supporting local farmers first. “We’re trying to provide a realistic alternative to industrial animal agriculture,” says Chandler, who has been raising sheep and lambs on her farm outside Athens, Ga., for 27 years. “To viably do that, you’ve got to support your local farmer. There is a huge amount of roadblocks to producing animal products, from regulations to cost of land to neighbors’ pit bulls attacking your sheep. You need consumers who are going to buy more than one piece of lamb once a year.”

She adds, “If you want that guy to be there for Easter, you’ve got to support them all year-round. You need to have a long-term relationship with somebody you identify as doing a good job.”

Small meat producers continue to be hamstrung by a lack of cost-effective processing options. Chandler says processors in Georgia charge by the head—up to $80 per lamb—meaning she saves money by bringing in larger lambs. For her, supporting local producers means buying a half- or full-carcass of meat, rather than individual cuts. And consumers should just expect to pay more for a local, sustainable cut of lamb.

“If you can’t afford it, just eat less. But try to support it,” she says.

So, if you pick up a cut of lamb from the supermarket this week—and lamb still is the most sustainable choice for supermarket meat—where is it coming from? Probably Australia or New Zealand, places that Chandler says have pretty good sustainability standards—but that also means the meat has been shipped thousands of miles. She adds that some farms in the States are selling meat in the spring from lambs that were a year old. A search of the online farmers market Athens Locally Grown turned up several growers marketing meat from yearlings as lamb.

“A yearling is not a lamb; it’s mutton,” she says, adding that mutton, the term used for meat from older sheep, can be a great local alternative to spring lamb. “But don’t call it lamb.”

In the end, with lamb and most other foods, it is better to get on your local producer’s schedule than to ask her to get on yours, Chandlers says. In some cases, this may mean giving up lamb for Easter or Passover. The consequences for not doing so could be devastating to a local farmer.

“Until the consumer says they want something else, the industrial agriculture system will continue,” she says. “The other system is not a good system environmentally. If you want it to be sustainable, the number one rule for sustainability is sustainable income. It can be a beautiful system if you can nurture this beautiful system of small farms.”