Alberta ranchers beware: there’s a new threat out on the open range. But this one is soft and fuzzy.
The Alberta Lamb Producers have launched a campaign to make their sheep a mainstay on the province’s dinner plates—and they’re trying to convert cattlemen to shepherds. The ALP campaign kicked off last month at the Alberta Sheep Symposium, where members gathered to hear lectures on topics like nutrition and lamb mortality.
According to ALP Chair Norine Moore, it was the perfect moment to show off sheep. Demand for lamb meat is on the rise, she says; while it used to just be “baby boomers and immigrants” who hankered after lamb loin, Moore says the market is becoming more diverse. It’s also a uniquely profitable product. “We felt that because other sectors of livestock are not doing so well, that there’s a real opportunity here.” Indeed, while beef and pork prices are falling, lamb has stayed “high and stable” for three years. And there’s room to grow. “We only fill about 50 per cent of domestic demand,” says Moore.
Chef Darren Nixon, of the Okotoks, Alta., restaurant Divine, agrees demand is growing. The lamb enthusiast travels the province promoting lamb for the ALP, and claims he can turn on even the most skeptical eaters to lamb’s “rich and luxurious” taste. “I’ve converted a lot of people,” he swears. The chef’s bestseller is fairly traditional: a “giant lamb shank,” which is browned, seasoned, and cooked for up to five hours. But Nixon insists that lamb is a flexible meat: “People think it’s not as versatile. [But that’s] because they’re brought up on chicken.”
In addition to pushing existing producers to increase their flocks, the ALP hopes to win over defectors from the struggling beef and pork industries. But it’s not all about business. One of the themes of the new campaign is “pride.” “Beef producers in Alberta are incredibly proud of their product, because it’s really famous,” Moore explains. “We want [our producers] to be proud of saying: I am a sheep producer. And I produce lamb!”