The Farm to Table movement is well established now, but when John and Sukey Jamison started raising lamb on their farm in western Pennsylvania more than 40 years ago, they were on the forefront of the food revolution. Their small farm found a following among European chefs like Jean-Louis Palladin, and sustainability pioneers like Alice Waters. Even Julia Child cooked with the Jamisons’ lamb. The couple has a new book, “Coyotes at the Pasture & Wolves at the Door: Stories and Recipes from Our Farm to Your Table.” (Go to the Jamison Farm website for their recipes or see below.)
The Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant spoke with John and Sukey Jamison about their storied life, and how they are coping under the current challenges.
LISTEN to their conversation:
Julie Grant: So, can you start out and tell us a little bit about your farm?
John: So the way it started was in 1976, Sukey and I bought an old stone house outside of Latrobe [about 40 miles east of Pittsburgh] when we moved back here, when I moved back here to go into a family business, and it was a house that was built in 1798. It was beautiful, but needed a lot of work, and the guy wouldn’t sell it unless we bought the 65 acres that went with it. So after about five to 10 years or so, we got less interested in the house and more interested in the farm. And Sukey started raising sheep for…
Sukey: …4-H, with the children. So, we were having a learning experience about raising animals on the farm and all that stuff that we learned through 4-H. Plus, I was always into cooking, both of us were always into cooking and good food, and I had been doing some catering because my first love in all this world was cooking. So that’s what led us into farming and raising lamb and doing sheep.
John: As far as the business goes, we couldn’t sell much lamb around here locally, so we tried to do it through the mail. We tried different magazines, but what worked best were the one-inch ads in the back of The New Yorker magazine, which they don’t have anymore, but they used to. We were one of the earlier small farms, I guess, to do that.
And at that time, why do you think you couldn’t sell it locally?
John: There was just no interest in lamb around here. Well, anywhere. So if we had a national audience, we thought we would have a better chance of selling, which we did.
In the book, the way you describe what Pittsburgh restaurants were looking for at the time…it did make me laugh.
John: Well, in ‘85, we were trying to sell to restaurants in Pittsburgh. I referred to it as surf and turf in Pittsburgh at that time was carp and kielbasa. Obviously, Pittsburgh has changed a lot, and really everything has in the food business.
Sukey, in the book, John referred to you as his wife who had been a Cincinnati debutante, and was now working on a farm in western Pennsylvania. How did your parents react when you and John decided you were going to buy a farm and start farming?
Sukey: That’s a good question. There was a lot of disbelief here. They were always behind us, but a little bit…
Sukey: Yes…well, they were my parents, and so they were going to support us one way or another. They didn’t disapprove of it, but they didn’t necessarily approve of it because it was totally a different lifestyle.
John: So, my father-in-law was absolutely convinced that I was leading his daughter down to a road to bankruptcy. And so he always told us, ‘When you go bankrupt, you can always eat rib chops,’ which isn’t bad. So I said, ‘Yeah, that’s okay.’ But he was convinced it was a stupid idea.
Sukey: But they did come around.
John: They did come around because they liked food a lot. And Sukey’s mother went to Julia Child’s cooking school in France, and that gave us a little in, in meeting her. And then the three of us became very good friends over the years, so that was fun.
So you befriended Julia Child, who cooked with your lamb. And you mentioned in the book that you donated lamb to a benefit in Pittsburgh back in 1988, and after that, you started getting orders from some really well-known chefs like Wolfgang Puck and others.
Then the French chef, John-Louis Palladin, who at the time was a chef at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, and who was, as you describe it in the book, at the front of the food revolution on the East Coast, while Alice Waters, another friend of yours, was pushing for locally produced foods out West. So would you tell us the story of when you were first carrying your lambs into the Watergate Hotel restaurant?
John: So, I have two lamb carcasses on my back and Sukey has one on her back. We pounded on the door, opened it, and there was a sea of white jackets of cooks and chefs, and all of a sudden the sea was parted by this tall guy, about 6 foot 4.” This was John-Louis, and I had no idea who he was.
He looked at the carcass, he put his head inside the cavity of the lamb, and he’s looking at everything and smelling and smiling and doing this and doing that, and all of a sudden he started crying and he said, ‘I’m sorry. I have not seen lamb like this since I’m in France. This is a souvenir of my youth.’ It was really something else, I’ll tell you. So John-Louis liked our lambs so much because of the grass taste of the lamb.
I think a lot of people might not realize something that you talk about in the book, that the grass in Pennsylvania is actually particularly good.
John: Oh, it’s amazing, and it gives you a certain taste. So John-Louis’ favorite lamb in France was from an area called Sisteron, in the lower Alps, and the elevation is almost exactly the same as ours. So, he and I always thought that the flowers that they were eating, and the herbs they were eating were very similar to what we have here.
What are you doing on your farm that you would say is different from other farms, why you would say it has appeal to chefs at this level?
John: At the time we…started getting interested in farming, and it was right after the Arab oil embargo of ‘74 then, so grain prices were going up, and a lot of grass farming started in western Pennsylvania because we had access to wire from U.S. Steel that was used in the new kind of fencing that people were using to divide pastures.
So it became very interesting to us because we didn’t have a farm background, we were English majors from W&J [Washington and Jefferson College]. And I got interested in intensive rotational grazing, which is moving the animals from one paddock to another. After they eat a pasture for three or four days, we then pull them off and the pasture rests, and they go to a fresh one. Because of this, we’ve never broken the soil on this farm…in the 35 years we’ve owned the farm. As far as the carbon, it’s all sequestered into the soil.
So you think this is not only good for the lambs, but also good for the environment, for the climate?
John: Oh, yeah. There’s been a lot of study on it over the last five or 10 years, and we’re finding that it’s made a huge difference.
It sounds like you’ve gone through some tough financial times, the recession around 2008, like many people, but the farm has survived. You’ve become kind of famous as lamb farmers with orders from many well-known chefs and restaurants. So now there’s this health pandemic. What’s happening with the farm now?
John: Well, it’s a problem. We’re trying to deal with it as best we can. We obviously have no restaurant business.
Meaning, restaurants aren’t open, so they’re not ordering from you?
John: Yeah, that’s right. It was roughly 50% of our business, probably more until Easter. Easter is a seasonal business for us.
Sukey: But every week we sell to the restaurants , and say fifteen or twenty restaurants every week that get orders from us.
John: It was a huge business. So now we don’t have that business.
I would imagine Easter as a time of year when people are gathering in large groups as a time when you get a lot of orders?
Sukey: We’re getting small orders because people aren’t having big gatherings, so they’re individual orders, somebody ordering one leg of lamb.
John: Oftentimes people would order three legs of lamb because they’re having a huge Easter dinner with fifteen to twenty people, and we aren’t seeing that. We’re having a lot of single orders.
But it’s still very busy, I think because it’s Easter, but it’s also busy because of the fact that we can ship directly to them and they don’t have to go anywhere. And nobody’s touching it, and it’s going directly from the farm to them. They don’t have to go to a store. So I’m not necessarily happy about it, but it is what it is. But that has probably helped the business somewhat.
Top photo: John and Sukey Jamison. Photo courtesy of Jamison Farm