West Virginia Family Farm Not Sheepish About Lamb Operation

SUMERCO, W.Va. (AP) — Scott and Mattie Smith are bullish on the commercial lamb business.

The father-daughter team manages about 100 sheep at Midnight Farms, a 230-acre, three-generation family farm venture clinging to a Lincoln County ridge overlooking the Coal River Valley, a few miles from Corridor G and the Kanawha County line.

About half the farm’s wool-bearing occupants are newborns who arrived via the farm’s ewes during the recently concluded lambing season, making the Smiths’ barn a beehive of activity. In addition to monitoring the birthing process, in case human assistance is needed, the Smiths apply ink brand numbers to newborn lambs, linking them to their mothers, notch the ears of twins, neuter male lambs and keep all lambs, rams and ewes supplied with hay and grain.

“It’s a long haul between Christmas and spring, so it’s good to have all that birth and renewal going on through the winter,” said Scott Smith, a family physician with a practice in Alum Creek by day, and a sheep farmer by night and early morning.

Starting in May, the flock goes out to pasture, and is rotated through a series of 12 fenced paddocks spread over about 65 acres, to prevent overgrazing. Last year, the Smiths were able to pasture the flock into December, before having to begin supplying them with hay.

In summer, when the Smiths’ 50-some winter-born lambs reach 40 to 60 pounds, they will be trucked to the Mount Hope Auction in Ohio’s Amish country and sold.

The Smiths expect to get between $4 and $5 per pound for their lambs at the sale. Fresh meat markets across the Eastern Seaboard will be the final destination for most of the lambs.

Demand for fresh lamb is not high in West Virginia, and what lamb that can be found in state supermarkets is generally a frozen product imported from New Zealand, according to the Smiths.

While the Smiths’ operation might not be huge, when compared to sheep farms in the state’s top producing counties of Pendleton and Pocahontas, it is the largest commercial lamb venture in Lincoln or Kanawha counties, and one of only a handful of farms in the two counties where sheep are still raised.

In recent decades, the decline in sheep farming has been steady and statewide.

In the 1950s, more than 300,000 sheep and lambs could be found on West Virginia farms, according to state and federal agriculture statistics.

“Now, it’s down to 32,000 or 33,000,” Scott Smith said. “We’d like to see that trend reversed.”

Smith’s initial venture at Midnight Farms focused on cattle — a cow-calf operation involving 35 cows.

“But it turned out, this isn’t really cattle country,” he said. “The land is better suited for small ruminants, like sheep.”

With an abundance of overgrown pasture land and hayfields at inactive family farm sites across the region, Southern West Virginia could be a logical place for sheep farming in the state to rebound.

“It doesn’t take a huge investment to get started raising sheep,” Smith said. “We would like to see people fencing off a few acres of grass and grazing four or five sheep on it.”

Smith said quality young ewes to produce replacement lambs can be bought for about $200 to $250.

High school agriculture classes in the region should focus more on raising sheep, lambs and other small ruminants, he added.

“Sheep farming has been declining in West Virginia for too long,” Smith said. “Let’s try to revive it.”

Smith, 59, first developed an interest in agriculture while working at a dairy farm owned by an aunt and uncle during his youth.

For daughter Mattie Smith, 23, a first-grade teacher at Midway Elementary in Alum Creek, Midnight Farms has always been a part of her life. Trips to show the farm’s purebred Southdown and Border Cheviot rams and ewes at the State Fair of West Virginia were among the highlights of growing up at the farm.

The Midnight Farms sheep operation includes about 45 ewes and seven rams.

Scott Smith said the market price for wool has declined in value in recent years to the point that most of the fleece shorn last year ended up on a burn pile.

Midnight Farms was established by another family physician — Scott Smith’s father, Loren. The elder Smith, who also served as director of the Lincoln County Health Department, is now retired and also lives and works on the ridgetop acreage, where he created a bluebird trail for viewing the 21 bluebird houses he installed along the route.

Polly Smith — Mattie Smith’s mother and Scott Smith’s wife — is the principal at Lincoln County High School.

Midnight Farms also is home to several horses, a donkey, chickens, geese and pigeons.