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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

People are eating less lamb and wearing less wool these days with the result that over the last 20 years, the number of sheep in this country has been cut in half. There are many reasons for the decline of the American sheep industry. Luke Runyon of member station KUNC began his story talking to a sheep farmer.

LUKE RUNYARD, BYLINE: Fence-mending is the order of the day at Albert Villard's ranch outside Craig, Colorado in the northwest corner of the state. Rainstorms washed out the roads to his sheep herd up in the mountains

ALBERT VILLARD: Tried to shear down on the winter country.

RUNYARD: This is a busy time of year for Villard. In the fall he gathers his sheep, takes some to feedlots and others he shears for wool. After a couple years of drought, a handful of harsh winters and fluctuating prices...

VILLARD: The numbers are just way down and less sheep ranchers, just in general.

RUNYARD: Some sheep are raised for their wool, others primarily for food. The industry's contraction has been happening since the late 1940s, leaving ranchers like Villard to wonder, when are we going to hit bottom?

VILLARD: The industry as a whole I think is trying to get the numbers up, but there's so many factors as to why. I don't think you can blame any one thing.

RUNYARD: You can't blame just one thing. Take clothing for example. If you look at your tags, pieces from your wardrobe are more likely to be blended fabrics. Nylon, rayon and polyester dominate the fiber market.

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RUNYARD: "I'm standing at Double J Feeders outside Ault, Colorado, which one of just a handful of lamb feeding operations in the country. There are thousands of sheep, I mean it's basically all I can see from standing here. The feedlot can hold up to 50,000 sheep at any given time. Jeff Hasbrouck is the owner. He says 30 or 40 years ago, lambs played an important role in the small family farm.

JEFF HASBROUCK: Every farmer in the winter time would buy 1,000 lambs, run them out on the beet tops, corn, whatever and then they'd market those lambs in the spring.

RUNYARD: Well, all that's changed as farms have grown larger. Another problem that's plagued the industry is lamb's perception by the average consumer. Brad Anderson is a manager for a large multi-state co-op that markets lamb to meatpacking companies. Anderson puts the blame on the meat fed to soldiers all the way back in World War II.

BRAD ANDERSON: Those troops were fed canned mutton and when they came home they said, no more lamb, no more sheep. Don't eat any of it. And that's where we saw the steady decline.

RUNYARD: Sheep numbers tanked even faster 20 years ago when Congress ended subsidies for sheep ranchers. Today, those who are left face new problems like wolf attacks. American Sheep Industry Association Director Peter Orwick says an attack this year in Idaho left half a herd dead.

PETER ORWICK: In spite of having herders out there, the wolves still come right in, the horses scream, the dogs lay down and whine and they ran sheep over a cliff.

RUNYARD: But there is hope for sheep producers. Because many operations tend to be small, the growth in farmers markets has benefited ranchers. Orwick says there's plenty of room for growth in big cities too.

ORWICK: It's ethnic communities. Every major metropolitan city in the U.S. has a large immigrant neighborhood. Where are the people coming from? Where they prefer lamb. It's their meat.

RUNYARD: And so as the face of America changes the question is will those new markets grow fast enough to keep the American sheep industry from shrinking even further? For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Greeley, Colorado.

MONTAGNE: And that story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio collaboration on agriculture and food production.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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