Spring Lamb at Ninety Farms

Spring is in the air.

And this year, I was determined to do it right.

Chatting with my butcher, I dropped a few hints. "Hey, when is lambing season? I want to visit a farm."

The look he gave me was a cross between a Gary Coleman blast, "What you talkin' about, Willis?" and pity, "You crazy city girl!"

Undeterred, I pressed on. "Why are you giving me that look?"

He summed it up with a brief lesson in modern ranching, "Lamb can have babies whenever the farmer wants. There is no 'season'."

Whether by artificial insemination or providing males ample breed
ing opportunities, lambing can be a year-round business.

I turned to Linda Neunzig of Ninety Farms for a lesson on lamb.

While it's true, you can breed lamb year-round, Linda breeds her lambs to begin birthing in January. Why? As I've learned from Linda, to be a great rancher, first you must grow great grass. Since grass is seasonal, its best growing period is in the spring--producing grass that is sweet, dense, and nutrient-rich. Timing is an essential part of her breeding program. By the time her baby lambs are weaned, they immediately begin feeding on prime grazing grass.      

At the end of February, I headed out to Ninety Farms for a closer look. By then, the bulk of the lambs had been born, freeing up time to talk with Linda.

Ninety Farms raises Katahdin Hair Sheep, specifically bred for meat. This particular breed doesn't have wool, which means they don't produce lanolin. (Lanolin in wool-producing breeds affects the meat and tends to give it a greasy taste.) Her lamb is highly sought after--for chefs and ranchers alike. In fact, 70 of her lambs recently sold to a buyer in the Philippines and will be ready for transport in July. 

Linda's 50 acre farm is situated along the banks of the Stillaguamish River, about an hour north of Seattle. While this is prime grazing land, it is also prone to flooding. In the fall, moisture-laden air from Hawaii sweeps across the Pacific Ocean, producing a weather phenomenon called the Pineapple Express. Slamming against the west coast, the Pineapple Express brings torrential rain and warm air, which causes heavy mountain snow melt. Flooding is a regular part of life this farm.  Racing against a rain-swollen river, Linda manages to transport 250 head of livestock to a near by farm in less than 6 hours.

Flooding is a regular disruption. Dealing with the mud and muck on the farm is one thing, but a flooded house? That's another story. 

To prevent her house from flooding again, a cost-share FEMA grant funded this project...lifting her entire house five feet.

Standing on high ground, overlooking a valley of lamb frolicing in the sunshine, it's difficult to grasp the number of challenges that go into raising...and selling lamb. 

Linda with Corky Luster, beekeeper and owner of Ballard Bee Company

Linda's lamb is served at some of Seattle's best restaurants, including Lark, Crush, The Walrus and the Carpenter, Emmer and Rye, Boat Street Cafe, Terra Plata, and Bin on the Lake. 

While building relationships with chefs is an important part of the business, it often involves an educational component. My favorite story is the chef who called looking for sweetbreads, a delicacy made out of the thymus gland.

Chef was cooking at New York's illustrious James Beard House, and he wanted to prepare something special. He turned to Linda for sweetbreads. Though the request was flattering, from the rancher perspective, this presented a problem. In lamb, sweetbreads are the size of fava beans.

"Do you realize I'd have to kill my entire flock for that order? What am I supposed to do with the rest of the meat?"

Unwilling to slaughter her flock for sweetbreads, the chef was forced find another source. "I just don't get it," muses Neunzig. "Two whole lambs would feed everyone at that dinner."

My education in whole animal consumption began with that conversation. 

Predation is another concern on the farm. In this region, bald eagles flourish on salmon-rich river sources. And in leaner times, they prey on young lambs. Eagles are a protected species, and much larger than many people realize. Weighing up to 14 pounds and with a wingspan of nearly 6 feet, bald eagles are a force to recon with.

 Eagles have been known to pluck lambs from inside the barn!
photo credit: Linda Neunzig        
This year, 180 babies were born at Ninety Farms, but between the eagles and coyotes, they've lost nearly 50. At $300/head, predators have had a significant financial impact.

Inside the barn. At the height of the season, these stalls are filled with lambs about to give birth, or mothers and their young.

The last lamb of the season, waiting to give birth.

In the adjacent stall...feeding time!

Adorable, no?

Curious, this one leans in for a scratch from Corky.

These lambs are being milk fed. A typical birth produces one to three babies. For the mother, two is ideal. In the case of triplets, Linda explains, "Separating one of the babies increases its chance of survival and ensures a better growth rate."

This little guy was fascinated with my camera clicking away....

Lamb posse, out for a run.

Linda's daughter, Mattie Neunzig, is a champion horsewoman...and still in high school. To help offset her training and travel expenses, she runs her own business boarding horses on the farm.

Looking for trouble...is this pony, Lucky Dog.

Look at those locks! Remind you of anyone?

Spring on the farm is full of surprises...including an adorable litter of puppies.

View from the farm stand on Ninety Farms. 

To wrap up my visit, I bought a bone-in leg and some ground lamb (frozen) from the farm stand just off the main driveway. I've got Paula Wolfert's terrific new cookbook, Food of Morocco, and a lamb tagine in my future!

If you want to reach out to Linda, she sells to both restaurants and consumers. Lamb is available by the piece or whole lamb--perfect for those with butchering aspirations--available by request.  

Ninety Farms
22912 67th Avenue NE
Arlington, WA 98223
Facebook: Ninety Farms 
(360) 435-9304