Ruminant Ruminations

by Jill Isenbarger

Ten years ago, about the last thing I could imagine buying for dinner was a whole sheep. Back then, it was mostly restaurant fare and simple at-home cooking for my husband and me in our Washington, D.C., row house. The only sheep in my life—wild bighorns roaming western mountainsides—were the ones I worked as a conservationist to protect.

But a lot can change in a decade. Having recently purchased a whole sheep—a pastureraised animal, now skillfully butchered—I find myself preparing unique meals for our two young children and others who gather around our table for an evening meal.

For me, this act of whole-animal acquisition and attendant preparations has come to symbolize a lot about both my journey and Stone Barns Center’s over the past decade.

Since I arrived in 2009, I’ve immersed myself in the inner workings of our farming operation, exploring the connections between what we eat and how it shapes the world around us. In the case of sheep—which the environmentalist Ed Abbey once called “hoofed locusts” because of the damage they wrought to parts of the West—they can actually be beneficial to grasslands when managed well and raised in the right climate. And I’ve moved beyond my comfort zone by learning to enjoy a wider variety of foods and diverse cuts of meat. I’ve come to understand that using the entirety of an animal, not just its select parts, raised on well-managed pasture goes to the heart of sustainable agriculture.

As we mark the 10th anniversary of Stone Barns Center this year, there is no better symbol than the sheep—cornerstone of our pasture, rising star of cuisine—to illustrate how far we’ve come since our founding in 2004. Our demonstration and education work has certainly helped sheep farming take hold in the Northeast. We’ve trained apprentices and beginning farmers to raise them while experimenting with rotational grazing techniques that improve soil and pasture. And we encourage and advocate for the whole use of those animals, from meat to wool to milk.

Please visit us this season and you, too, will be inspired—maybe even to buy a whole sheep one day soon!

Jill Isenbarger, Executive Director