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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Lamb is more popular than ever, and prices for the meat are at an all-time high, but American sheep farmers are worried. They're afraid too much demand will hurt them in the long run. They say they need more farmers to raise sheep, and that existing sheep farmers need to increase the size of their flocks.

Fred Kight of member station WOUB in Athens, Ohio, has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHEEP BLEATING)

FRED KIGHT, BYLINE: This young sheep is in a holding pen in Don Van Ostran's barn in Southeast Ohio. It soon will be butchered and sold as lamb in a local Kroger store. This sheep is about 6 months old, not 6 weeks old. When city folks think of lamb, they tend to think of very young lamb, but 6 months is the average age of spring lamb going to market. But don't confuse this with the meat of older sheep that can be tough and less tasty. It's spring lamb that's very much in demand these days as an alternative to beef, chicken and pork.

While the cost is generally higher, consumers still demand high-quality American lamb. Large numbers of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, especially Muslims, often favor lamb or goat over beef.

DON VAN OSTRAN: Lamb is a popular meat among other cultures.

KIGHT: Don Van Ostran and other sheep farmers are happy that consumers are putting more lamb on their dinner tables, and farmers are making good money with lamb prices at an all-time high. Chops can go for about $15 a pound. Compare that to some chicken cuts in the $2 range, and comparable beef at about $5 a pound. Still, there's concern about the future.

Curt Cline is another Southeast Ohio sheep farmer, who worries about producing enough.

CURT CLINE: There needs to be a certain level of numbers of head of sheep to support infrastructure.

KIGHT: Infrastructure like processing plants and veterinary support. Cline says the long-term sustainability of the industry is at stake.

CLINE: So if the infrastructure falls apart, you're kind of left hanging. I don't view somebody else getting a flock of sheep as competition. I view them as partners.

KIGHT: The American Sheep Industry Association is calling on existing sheep producers to expand, and on new farmers to start production. This national initiative, launched last year, has a goal of producing 315,000 additional lambs by 2014. Both Cline and Van Ostran have signed on to be part of that effort. Van Ostran says there's a lot of room for growth in this region but not so much out West, where ranchers don't have access to additional grazing land.

VAN OSTRAN: It's new farmers that are interested but I think that also, the expansion's coming primarily through the Midwest and the East.

KIGHT: Agriculture officials think young farmers should be attracted to raising sheep because it's relatively low-cost compared to other herds. Sheep need fewer acres for grazing than cattle, for example, and sheep are significantly cheaper to feed. But sheep do come with a host of disease issues and unlike cattle, have a number of predators. Sheep farming also can be labor-intensive, especially when ewes are giving birth. But for today's sheep farmers, this intense labor seems to be paying off.

For NPR News, I'm Fred Kight in Athens, Ohio.

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