The Shepherds And Their Flock
Saveur|Summer 2019

Where the Appalachian mountains roll through southwestern Pennsylvania, saving the coal-blighted economy might mean a return to the sheep-farming industry the region was once known for.

Kate Morgan

Nothing is flat here. It’s all rolling hills, misty hollers, rhododendron thickets, and serpentine roads. It’s the rises and falls in the pavement that make my belly tense up as Amy Manko and her husband, Scooter, drive me around their slice of Appalachia in an early-fall rain.

Here in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, history matters. Most people can trace their local lineage back hundreds of years; they take pride in their role in the Whiskey Rebellion and in their Civil War soldiers. But it’s another history that’s really shaped this place: The geologic process that formed this steep terrain 300 million years ago left something valuable behind. We are in the heart of coal country.

For much of its recent history, this country has run on coal, lots of it produced here in Washington, Greene, and Fayette counties. Many of the small towns were founded by coal companies, and the region became a hub for manufacturing and industry. But as power plants have converted to using cheaper, somewhat more environmentally friendly natural gas, demand for coal has dipped drastically. Between 2005 and 2015, production fell by nearly 50 percent.

Greene County is still home to the Bailey Mine—the largest underground-mining complex in the country—but over the past decade, its two major competitors, dozens of smaller mines, and myriad businesses dependent on the coal economy have closed, taking thousands of jobs with them.

This economy hasn’t always centered on mining, though. Before the first shaft opened, another industry thrived in the rocky landscape.

“A century ago, this was the center of the universe for sheep,” says Scott Sheely, special assistant for workforce development at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. The rolling topography doesn’t lend itself to the crops that dominate most of Pennsylvania, as Amy points out when I ask about the lack of cornfields. It’s tough to drive a tractor at a 45-degree angle—but it’s heaven for ruminants. “The soil, grass, and topography aren’t good for many things,” Sheely explains, “but they’re perfect for sheep.”

Sheep arrived in North America with the Jamestown colonists, and by the 1640s, there were about 100,000 of them roaming the Northeast. As families moved farther afield and immigration increased, the number of sheep rose exponentially. It wasn’t just the landscape that made northern Appalachia an ovine Eden. The area was settled primarily by the Scots-Irish, who brought customs, such as sheep herding, with them from home.

The relative ease and affordability of raising sheep kept their numbers growing, and the market kept pace. American sheep production peaked during World War II, when there were more than 55 million head spread across the country, with vast herds concentrated in northern Appalachia. Thanks to its availability, canned mutton was shipped in bulk to soldiers overseas. GIs ate so much of the meat that many came home swearing they’d never eat it again.

Around the same time, the American appetite in general was changing. English-style menus that featured gamier meats were replaced by lighter, chicken- and pork dominated fare. In 1945, the average American ate about 7 pounds of lamb or mutton a year, according to the American Lamb Board. By 2011, consumption had dropped to less than a pound, and nearly half of Americans had never even tried it.

As lamb and mutton fell out of vogue in the second half of the 20th century, slaughterhouses and feed mills were shuttered. Farmers went to work at power plants and mines instead, and producers in New Zealand and Australia filled the remaining markets for lamb meat in the United States—mostly in cuisines of Indian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean families. Mutton disappeared from supermarkets almost entirely.

Amy’s family, however, has raised sheep here continuously for more than 200 years. In 1991, she inherited the Ross Farm—a homestead with a spot on the National Register of Historic Places—and today it’s home to about 200 sheep in shades of black, brown, and ivory. We stand in a pasture behind her house as she points out woolly dots on the hill.

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