Driving down 290 one wet, drippy day, we noticed a warehouse, empty, abandoned, and desolate, with the word “wool” painted on the side, atmospherically faded, close to disappearing. We love that look in Austin–faded remnants of a rural, cowboy past, weathered tin, faded paint, the ghost of a farmers mercantile. Soon I noticed another. And another. Wool? In Texas? Cows, of course, but sheep? Long enough ago to weather and fade, and disappear?
Our friend Loncito Cartwright recounts the history of the once-thriving sheep ranching business in Texas. “South Texas was settled by the Irish Empresarios. They had enormous sheep ranches that provided both meat and wool to the local community and to the rest of the country. But then three things happened. First, the herds were hit with internal parasites that the ranchers didn’t know how to treat. Second, the wool market tanked, and third, belt-driven mills everywhere began using cow hide for their belts, so all these guys switched over to raising cattle. A hundred years ago, there were 50 million heads of sheep in West Texas. Now there are 8 million in the whole United States.” He says, sadly, “We’ve become a country that imports our food.”
I ask him if sheep are more sustainable than cattle to raise-should we all be eating lamb instead of beef? He shakes his head, “No, it’s not really about one being better than the other. To truly be sustainable, you need to have all the animals on the ranch together–cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens. All of them are dead-end hosts for the parasites of the others, so by having them all on one property, you control disease and enrich the land.” Loncito has recently brought pigs into his ranching operation. If ranchers raising pigs and cattle could see that there was a market for local lamb, maybe they’d start adding some sheep to their herds too. We’ve been eating Texas beef all our lives, but Texas lamb has been a most pleasant discovery. Earthy and robust, with perhaps more nuance of flavor than beef, we love the way it works with a bright tangle of broccoli or greens. Cook some soon for a delicious dinner that makes truly sustainable ranching a brighter possibility in Texas.