There are many breeds of sheep and not all produce a flavor profile that’s entirely desireable. Wool and milk breeds, common in Colorado and New Zealand, produce a meat that is very gamey with a high concentration of lanolin. An oily compound produced by sheep bred specifically for their wool, lanolin can impart an undesirable gamey flavor in lamb.
But instead of using the common breeds that are raised in Colorado and New Zealand, we chose to raise a heritage breed. In doing so we are helping to preserve an important agricultural product that could easily be lost to the demands of industrial agriculture.
But we’re not just raising any heritage breed. We’re raising an Appalachian heritage breed that was bred specifically for their meat—the Katahdin. An Appalachian heritage sheep breed, the Katahdin was specifically developed in this country to be a versatile, robust animal with exceptional carcass qualities of tender, mild lamb.
There were two deciding factors that lead us to Katahdin sheep:
First, and most importantly, the flavor. Because Katahdin sheep were bred specifically for their meat, they taste quite different from the average rack of lamb. You'll find the meat to be incredibly tender, mild and slightly sweet. Because this isn't a breed that produces a ton of wool, the typical gaminess that is often expected with Colorado and New Zealand lamb isn't abundant here.
The second reason for raising Katahdin sheep is the availability. This breed is one of the most fertile sheep breeds out there, which means we’re able to keep a consistent supply of product year-round. This is a rare feat, and Freedom Run Farm is only able to do so because of this incredible breed.
A Taste of Place
The pastures of Kentucky are perfect for this breed and allow them to flourish in the field and develop a taste of place. Our sheep graze and forage pastures that have been meticulously managed to produce grasses that are native to the region. Because these conditions cannot be reproduced anywhere else, and because these flavors are imparted into the animals’ meat, the resulting product is a direct reflection of the place in which it was produced.
Valerie Samutin founded Freedom Run Farm in 2010. After attempting to recreate the meal she enjoyed with her husband on their wedding night—roasted lamb, naturally—they were both disappointed with the quality of lamb that was available. Unable to find grass-fed, organic lamb proved to be a challenge, so Valerie set out to learn everything she could about lamb shepherding.
She took a deep dive into not just lamb but sustainable agriculture as well. When the desire became too much to bear, Valerie took the leap and ditched urban life in Chicago to set up shop in rural Kentucky. She started her farm and slowly grew her flock to about 100 heads. These sheep enjoy a quiet life in the pastures of Freedom Run Farm, foraging their own food in open space.
Beyond her own flock, Valerie is deeply dedicated to returning Kentucky to its lamb producing heyday.
For decades, Kentucky was the primary producer of lamb in the United States—the region even developed its own regional style of lamb barbecue. However, with the onset of synthetic fabrics and the reduced demand for wool, the lamb industry bottomed out after WWII.
Valerie saw an opportunity in the rise of sustainable and heritage foods, and she’s now helping to lead the way in reintroducing lamb as both a profitable agricultural endeavor and a means for the region to reconnect with its culinary heritage.
After founding Freedom Run Farm, one of the first challenges that Valerie met was marketing her product. This is an issue that any small-scale agricultural producer runs into, and finding a way to overcome this is critical for long term success. The Lamb Association of America has a meager marketing budget, which is about half of what New Zealand spends marketing its product to Americans. With limited resources and support, and competing against the big dollars, Valerie knew she had to do something to create a new way for her to help bring this amazing lamb to market.
After studying how other small-scale agricultural producers (cheese, produce, livestock) overcame these challenges, there was one solution that made the most since—create a consortium.
A consortium is similar to a collective, or co-op of producers, who work together to bring their product to market under one brand.
This has numerous positive effects on all of the businesses, and the reason is quite simple—there is power in numbers. Each member of the Freedom Run Farm Consortium follows the same rigid standards of sustainably pasture-raised Katahdin sheep. Our program consists of shared performance genetics, nutritional program and management practices. Working together, we have perfected our production method to ensure consistency, product availability, and premium quality.
Additionally, the consortium allows the collective of shepherds to pool their resources to help market their product. This means things like consumer education, packaging, and print materials (even this very website) would be hard for one small farm to accomplish; but together, they can create the messaging and marketing needed to successfully build the consumer base needed to sustain individual small family farms—and tell the world how unique and delicious their lamb is!
The FRF consortium allows shepherds who might not otherwise want to risk moving into sustainable agriculture feel that they are being supported and have a greater chance at success. The end result is two-fold. First, more and more farms are shepherding lamb, restoring an important piece of Kentucky agricultural heritage. And secondly, by helping to support these shepherds and proving that a market exists for pasture-raised lamb, more producers are switching to a model that is sustainable and abides by good agricultural practices.