Levi Wahl grew up as a fifth-generation sheepherder. But when he was admitted to Oregon State University in the late 1990s, Wahl’s father actively discouraged him from studying to continue the family business.
“He said, ‘I’ll help you with school, but my one stipulation is that you cannot take any animal science classes. Be a poet, do whatever, just no animal science.’ It had been such a bad run of finances that he said to just get out,” says Wahl.
Instead, Wahl took any agriculture-related class he could—soil science, crop growing, feed—and tapped into his family’s network of farmers to learn everything he needed to know about animal health. Despite his father’s advice, Wahl started farming after graduation and now raises about 1,000 sheep with his family in western Oregon.
“I truly just enjoy the animals,” says Wahl. “We have five different businesses here that we do…the animals make the least amount of money, but it’s what I really want to be doing. I can’t get away from them.”
The Wahls partner with Niman Ranch, a network of more than 600 small and mid-size farmers and ranchers across the United States. Niman Ranch farmers and ranchers adhere to high standards of sustainable and humane farming practices, and in exchange, they receive a guaranteed market for their product and access to a network of resources.
“[Niman] allowed us the comfort to expand the herd,” says Wahl. “They also were already aligned with how we raised the animals, so it didn’t take any change in our program to get started…it was security in price, and they also gave us a premium for what we were already practicing.”
Wahl says that he wouldn’t be able to raise sheep at all without Niman Ranch.
“Meat packers have run everybody out of business. That’s the long and the short of it,” says Wahl.
According to Wahl, lamb raised in New Zealand and Australia can be imported much cheaper than lamb raised in the United States. Often, meat packers—which are companies that prepare animal products for wholesale and retail—will rely on these imported products and save U.S. lamb only for distributors that require it.
“In keeping the market just a little bit flooded, they can keep the price down, and domestic growers are always just barely making it,” says Wahl.
In 2022 lamb market prices fell by more than 50 percent across the U.S. “If you know anything about meat prices in the store, it has not changed anywhere but up,” says Wahl. “So, who is making the money there?”
Wahl says that preventing meat packers from owning animals could go a long way to help support small and mid-size lamb farmers and ranchers. This practice is currently illegal, but Wahl says that there has been little enforcement. When packers own animals, they are able to pull from their own supply when prices go up, instead of buying from farmers on the open market. This means that many farmers aren’t able to sell their livestock, losing income when the animals grow too large.
“With Niman Ranch, you know what you’re going to get,” says Wahl. He no longer stresses about how he will be compensated for his hard work when it comes time to sell lamb in the fall, because he knows he is receiving a guaranteed price and market for his product.
Wahl was originally pushed to grow his sheep herd by his oldest daughter, who was about 10 years old at the time. He says that seeing his three children enjoy the lifestyle and work of the farm is one of the most rewarding parts of the job. Now, he hopes to build a business that he can pass on for his children to enjoy as much as he does.
“I feel a lot of encouragement that a lot of new bright individuals are interested in agriculture,” says Wahl. “It seems that there are more people that actually have loftier goals than just doing what dad was doing…There’s a lot more brainstorming on how to actually raise animals and crops than just your industrial [model]. It does seem like a brighter future.”
Articles like the one you just read are made possible through the generosity of Food Tank members. Can we please count on you to be part of our growing movement? Become a member today by clicking here.
Photo Courtesy of the Wahls