Shawn Ray, commercial sheep producer from Cumberland, Ohio, and treasurer of the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association, is one of the state’s farmers who is working hard to grow Ohio’s sheep industry.
POWELL, Ohio — The sheep industry needs more Shawn Rays.
It’s a good time to be a sheep producer. While the national economy sputtered through recent years, the sheep industry experienced a boom, according to American Sheep Industry Association reports.
Lamb prices doubled over the past couple of years, and an expanding worldwide market for wool has emerged, led by China and India. Cull ewe and pelt markets are also profitable.
Such good times come with an asterisk, according to sheep and wool producers in Ohio and around the country: If demand continues to increase, it could strain existing processors to the point of collapse.
That’s where Ray comes in.
Ray, 47, started his flock with one FFA chain ewe about 30 years ago. Now, he runs a commercial sheep farm with his wife and three teenage children in Cumberland, Ohio.
Currently, the Ray family raises meat goats, and has about 100 Dorset-based ewes on 172 acres. For the past five years, they have expanded their flock by about 5 percent; this year, they’ve expanded about 20 percent with the purchase of additional ewes.
Between a contract with a local grocery store and the Barnesville livestock sale, they are selling about 125 lambs each year; business is humming.
To help meet the increased national and global demand, ASI has launched an initiative aimed at building an industry of producers like Ray and his family. The goal: Increase the production of lamb by 315,000 head and wool production by 2 million more pounds by 2014.
The formula, “Let’s Grow with twoPLUS,” calls for current producers to increase their flocks by two head per 100 and increase their average birth rate to two lambs per year.
The industry is also encouraging outreach to new producers, citing the low startup costs compared to other livestock sectors and environmental and business sustainability.
Ray, the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association secretary and treasurer, estimates their business could expand two or three times over, if not for their full-time jobs (Shawn is the Noble County health commissioner, and his wife, Kim, is a district conservationist with National Resources Conservation Service).
Despite the ability of Dorsets to breed out of season, the Rays only lamb once a year to fit their schedules.
“Really, the only thing that’s kind of limiting us from even more growth is that we’re busier than all get out,” Ray said.
He sees the potential for his family and for others as well — and the need.
“We simply cannot provide enough lamb in Ohio to meet the demand,” he said.
Producers and processors throughout Ohio are equally aware of the situation, and are already at work to address it even as ASI launches its initiative.
It started as a property tax complaint from Mid-States Wool Growers cooperative in Canal Winchester, Ohio, led by general manager David Rowe.
In a meeting with the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Rowe said they realized the burden could be offset by increasing the volume of lamb and wool — and that producers and processors alike had similar concerns.
What followed has been, according to Rowe, an unprecedented level of access and dialogue between the state sheep industry and the state’s government agencies. Over the past six months, they have established regular meetings between the representatives of ODA, the state sheep industry, U.S. Department of Agriculture and retailers like Kroger’s.
The group has been dubbed the “Sheep Summit.” The goal? Encourage increased production in the state by making it as easy as possible for existing and new producers to use resources to expand or get established.
“We want this to be like a turnkey,” Rowe said. “We want to be able to bring people together.”
While the initiative is still in the planning stages, Rowe is optimistic.
“We really want to get everybody’s viewpoint, because we’ve think we’ve got one shot. We don’t want to mess it up,” he said.
Rocky Black, ODA deputy director, echoed Rowe, and promised support.
“When you come up with a plan that’s adapted for Ohio, we’ll be there and we’ll push hard for you,” he told a gathering of Ohio and national industry representatives last week at Riverwood Farms in Powell.
Peter Orwick, ASI executive director, isn’t surprised that the state is already leading the way.
“Ohio does play a leadership role,” he said. “We’re probably going to be running to catch up.”
Orwick believes increased consumption of lamb and wool is the new normal.
Roger High, OSIA executive director, agrees.
“We’ve done a great job in our industry with our promotional checkoff programs,” he said. “I think that’s why we’re seeing a lot of that increased demand out there, because we are promoting our products better than we have before.”
Other factors are also in play. This year, Kroger’s announced an American lamb-branded initiative; Super Wal-Mart also has committed to selling American lamb exclusively for the next two years.
Ethnic groups familiar with lamb are expanding nationwide. In Ohio, the Columbus area is the home of the second largest Somali population in the country, according to the Somali Community Association of Ohio.
This isn’t the market of a decade ago, Orwick said. There was more volatility, and producing and processing sectors didn’t communicate. Now, there is unity and open communication.
“It hasn’t happened by accident. We’ve worked at it,” Orwick said.
While 2014 is the national initiative’s target year, High advocated a steady approach to build the necessary infrastructure.
“We just started into this,” he said. “This is not going to happen tomorrow, it’s not going to happen by the end of the year. This is going to be a two- or three- or five- or 10-year project.”