The World Shepherd Project and Why it Matters to the World
About a month ago, I received one of the most exciting emails I have received in a long time. A gentleman in Georgia, named Greg Stewart, had read my book and thought I would be interested in what he is up to. So I went to visit him. Interested is an understatement. If you want to know how an accord between humans and sheep could be more powerful than a Paris Accord, and what one man is doing to prove it, read on.
Greg Stewart is a veterinarian specializing in large animal production medicine, reproduction, and genetics (so, not cats and dogs). He has worked around the world in meat production, genetics, reproduction, and education. And at his farm in Georgia, he has been working on a breed of hair sheep adapted for the Southeast for 20 years. This means he has been tirelessly committed to selection and breeding of sheep that don’t need to have their wool sheared, can feed on warm season grasses, thrive in hot temperatures with cold winters and high rainfall, all while possessing optimum parasite resistance, reproductive prolificy (they have a lot of babies!), and top quality carcass yield.
As a farmer from the mountains of North Carolina who has experienced both the highs and lows of sheep production, and with a background in retail butchery, processing, and restaurant management, when I stepped into a paddock at World Shepherd for the first time and laid my eyes on Greg’s animals, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. First of all, the animals were muscular and barrel-shaped, the way you want a meat lamb to look, with alert faces and high sexual dimorphism, meaning you could easily tell males from females within the flock. Secondly, they approached the ATV we were riding in curiously, while remaining together with smaller animals protected and close to their guard dogs. In other words, they weren’t skittish and easily stressed, but they had a strong and stable flocking instinct. Pointing to his choice ram, Mo’ Muscle, Greg asked me to guess the animal’s age. Judging from the size, particularly the width of the animal, I guessed 3 years. Greg let a tiny silence lapse before he told me that Mo’ Muscle is a mere 12 months old! I was absolutely shocked. Pointing to a lamb with a thick tail and strong spring to it, I asked, “How old is that girl?” Greg said, “I imagine she’s just shy of 10 weeks.” 10 weeks?! The lamb was easily double the size of 10-week lambs at our farm, with far superior body condition and overall vigor. I think I said “Man, you gotta be shittin’ me!” To which he said, “I’ve been at this 20 years. I’ve got a few things figured out.”
Let me tell you a little bit about why any of this matters. I have been involved for over fifteen years in the exploration and development of sustainable food production and supply. That means environmentally friendly, economically viable, and socially responsible production, processing, and eating, all across the supply chain. At the farm where I work near Asheville, NC, we have been using animals to increase soil fertility and carbon sequestration, using models of rotational and management intensive grazing. These production systems, developed by Alan Savory, and popularized and adapted by people such as Joel Salatin, have been a guiding force behind my work in promoting Ethical Meat—the premise that there is a place in the market, on the land, and in the diet for responsibly reared livestock animals and their meat, milk, and fiber. What it requires is a radical reconfiguration of how our animals live, how they die, how we process them, and how we cook and eat them. Of all the tiers in this supply chain, the biggest barriers to change exist in production and processing.
From the field, Greg took me to his on-farm warehouse, where he opened the freezer and handed me vacuum sealed packages of inch-thick loin chops, the color of rubies, and frenched racks weighing in at least 2/3 more than most hair sheep racks I’ve cut or seen packaged over the last decade. The meat was lean but not scrawny, the loins were generous but not bulky. At a target finish weight of 120 lbs, these animals are producing the best looking non-wool breed lamb meat I have ever seen. I’m not alone in this sentiment. Greg is shipping lamb to a host of customers up and down the east coast, including the widely lauded chef Dan Barber, and his well-decorated restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
From the freezers, we went to the mobile vet clinic, a 20+’ trailer rigged with a lab, a treatment room, and sleeping quarters for two veterinarians. In this unit, Greg and a small labor force practice embryonic transfer at World Shepherd, and at ranches across the nation, where he takes his rig during the off season. Using this practice, he has been able to multiply the top 10% of his flock in short order, while supplying superior genetics to other locations. Still struggling to pick my jaw up off of the floor, Greg invited me to join the embryo team this fall, and I have jumped at the opportunity to learn about his process. In addition, he offers veterinary workshops to students from the university of Georgia, taking his own flock through his handling facility to teach vaccination, castration, ultrasound technique, hoof trimming, animal selection and flock sorting. I’ll be aiming my vehicle south for that adventure as well, in a short month or so.
What solidifies my respect for Greg’s vision and operation, beyond the hard evidence I see in front of my eyes, is his knowledge and background in conventional veterinary science, coupled with his commitment to alternative, natural production. So, yes, he brings the vet students out to teach them vaccinations and hoof trimming and worming, but he’s cut out vaccinations almost completely from his production system, has stopped worming animals, and hasn’t trimmed hooves in over 10 years. The animals, in short, are adapted to his system and don’t need pampering or constant grooming for survival. They are built to resist the deterioration that conventional shepherds spend all their time preventing or treating, and the animals don’t just survive, they thrive. In my world, we often ask whether we are raising resistant animals or whether we are perpetuating diseases and ailments in our production that are resistant to our solutions and medicines. Clearly, Greg Stewart is raising superior, adapted animals, with a priority on prevention of disease and mortality, rather than treating the symptoms of an ill-devised flock.
What if I told you that every animal has a design within the natural flow of things, greater than whatever perceived importance it has to humans? And what if I told you that a ruminant animal like a sheep or a cow has a purpose much greater than that of providing humans with meat to eat? What if I then went so far as to say that humans should probably avoid eating the meat of an animal like a sheep or a cow, unless the meat comes from an animal that was produced with respect to that higher purpose I mentioned?
I bet you’d want to know what that purpose is, and I’ll of course tell you. The chief and most important purpose of a ruminant animal like a sheep or a cow is to eat grasses and forbs (which humans can’t eat), and as they are doing so, to feed the soil and the soil microorganisms under their feet, via their saliva, dung, and urine. The act of the ruminant animal fulfilling that purpose causes many important things to happen, including but not limited to better soil organic matter, carbon sequestration in the pasture, better water and mineral absorption and retention in the soil, and increased tiller (lateral stem) production in grasses so that when they re-grow after grazing, plants have a higher photosynthetic potential, and pastures have increased plant biodiversity—meaning more sunlight converted to high quality soil, which feeds high quality plants and high quality animals, all while reducing carbon in the atmosphere. This exchange between sun, soil, animal, and plant has been forgotten in the years since agriculture’s green revolution, and science, as well as the eating public, is calling us toward alternative production that honors the exchange while producing meat and milk that tastes great and poses no harm to the human body, the water cycle, the soil, or the atmosphere.
Easy, you might imagine. Just take all those animals fattening in feedlots on highly-subsidized, genetically modified grains, and being treated with antibiotics and growth hormones, and let them through the gates, out into the fields. Right? Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy.
Over the past 80+ years, America has been intensifying agriculture in such a way that our soils, animals, plant cultivars, and equipment are specifically built for a vast industrial system, dependent on synthetic fertilizers, imported and decreasing water supplies, massive government subsidization, and heavy use of fossil fuel energy and mechanization. In response, an alternative movement has arisen within commercial agriculture which seeks to restore natural cycles and build sustainable systems, but obstacles abound, from competition and political lobbying, to poor soil quality, and from weak animals and plants to increasingly confused and under-informed consumers. The effort to re-define the ways we raise food in our country requires intensive scientific, financial, emotional, and social capital. My work as an author, farmer, and educator, is to investigate this broadly as well as up-close, and to tell the story of the people and the issues behind this effort, in an attempt to understand where it is successful and where it is not.
If you can step into my shoes for just a moment or two, there is this: Imagine that everyone in the entire world suddenly and unanimously agreed that there is a deep and dire purpose for the ruminant animal in our climate woes, in our food supply, and in our culture of cuisine and of health. And suppose then, that all the soil and all the animals and plants that we eat, worldwide, and all the people were primed and ready to act out this agreement. Do you think there would be a handbook on how to do it? After all, how much and of what type of grass does an animal need to make the best meat in the most economical way? How much should wheat cost if the government stops paying farmers for its production, regardless of the weather? What is the best type of lettuce/chicken/soil/apple for a Chinese farmer, a South Georgia applesauce company, a rancher in New Mexico, or a single mother with an autistic kid? As you can imagine in a brief and jarring consideration of these questions, there are about as many ways to grow food as there are stars in the sky, and guess what? We don’t all agree. About hardly anything anymore.
Should we focus on the pasture that the animal eats, or the stress the animal endures? Or should we focus on the animal’s lineage and genetic makeup instead? What if putting a ton of effort into pasture doesn’t matter, if the genetic makeup of the animal is not suited to it? Perhaps we should focus on all of it, all at the same time. How do we do that? These are the real questions that farmers, butchers, processors, and others in the niche meat economy are dealing with. Every. Freakin. Day.
Here’s where I need you to pay the closest attention you can possibly pay, even if you’re Elon Musk, or if you spend your days working for the circus, or forging ahead in neuroscience, or making coffee drinks, or painting murals: nobody knows the answer. That’s right. No matter what any agricultural expert’s opinion about global warming, vegetarianism, seed growing, fertilizer combinations, animal stocking densities, price fluctuations, or how to cook a good burger, there is not a proven right answer to the question of how to grow food in the best way for the planet, the economy, the plants and animals, and the human population. If you take no other information to bed with you tonight let it be that. We have only been practicing agriculture for roughly 10,000 years. There is no reason to believe that any form of it will work out positively in the long run.
As a proponent of the idea that many things are broken in our food supply and need fixing, who daily carries the knowledge of the vast mystery that we face in harnessing nature’s magic into viable food and fiber, this is precisely why Greg Stewart’s World Shepherd Project is so fascinating to me. It is a project that takes immense and numerous questions, and works from the root of the issues to formulate solutions. Instead of taking sheep that are raised for the commodity market, with constant grain, constant access to shade, ready medicine and a conditioned market and trying to change the production model to suit a burgeoning alternative market, World Shepherd project says we must change the entire supply chain, starting with the animals themselves.
The concept that the genetics of animals must be re-developed alongside the redevelopment of grazing, and pasture management, and marketing to fit in with alternative and grass-based systems is not a new one. But hardly anyone is doing this work with sheep. The majority of the argument for adapted genetics in grass-fed meat (and by the way, it is not a widespread or well-known argument anyway) is dominated by cattlemen. For the past few years, I have been synthesizing the work of many leading cattlemen in this school, such as Alan Savory and Johann Zeitsman, and also trying to work their models and philosophies for cattle into sheep production. I’m learning that that may not exactly work. I mean, the tenets are strong and transferable, but there is a lot we still need to learn about the details of application.
So, how do you do something that no one has ever done before? That’s the foundational question behind the work that I do. After asking it just shy of half my life, I’ve decided on these guarantees: You work all the angles, as much as you can. You keep strong ethics. You set broad but clear goals. You search desperately for comrades in your industry. You prepare yourself daily to fail in epic, unexpected ways. And, you divorce yourself from the belief that you will solve the quest within your lifetime. Every day, all of us working for change in the world must do these things. I can’t tell you how inspiring it is, to be committed to something that I find that important. And I can’t tell you how exciting it is, to be a person working towards something of this magnitude, and to visit a place like World Shepherd.
Since my visit to Greg’s farm in Watkinsville, my brain has been abuzz with ideas and questions. We are looking at our own grazing plan to incorporate things that Greg has proven successful in sheep production over the last twenty years, and can see the opportunity to incorporate cattle into sheep production in a way that benefits both species, potentially more than farmers have already thought possible. We are devising a way to get some of Greg’s genetics into our NC flock as soon as this fall. I’m preparing myself to learn about embryo transfer, and its applications for developed adapted genetics, not only in sheep, but also in other animals that humans raise for food. I’m re-imagining planting calendars and researching new forage species to incorporate into our seed order, not only to improve our flock’s vitality and our soil’s health, but also to test and tweak and share with other farmers.
If all goes according to plan, World Shepherd will eventually be delivering genetics and production plans to other farmers, and scaling up production of adapted, sustainable, high quality lamb to markets all over the nation. For a country that eats less than 1lb of lamb per year, where production has dropped drastically nationwide over the last thirty years, this poses incredible opportunity for the lamb market, the soil, the grasses, the atmosphere, the animals, and chefs and eaters everywhere. In addition to creating a production model that is replicable, World Shepherd is working on customized processing, and an education center for anyone who wants to learn about and shape the vital sustainable future of ruminant agriculture.