STAUNTON — You won’t find lamb on the all-you-can-eat $8.95 lunch buffet at Taste of India in downtown Staunton anymore.
Lamb is huge in Indian cuisine, but at current prices, owner Ashok Kunver said it’s too expensive to keep it in indefinite supply.
“People ask for it. They say, ‘Don’t you have lamb?” Kunver said. “I say, ‘Yeah, we have it on the menu.'”
There’s an entire section of the menu reserved for lamb dishes for about $12, and several appetizers include the meat.
Kunver said he used to buy three gazes of lamb legs per week at about $3 per pound, but has cut back since it rose to $6 per pound. He said he might have to raise prices for lamb dishes as well.
Across the country, demand for lamb is up, imports are down and prices are soaring.
The amount of sheep raised in Virginia dropped from 326,000 in 1960 to 75,000 in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. There are even fewer goats used for meat.
It’s a good time for Leo Tammi, who raises sheep at Shamoka Run Farm in Mount Solon. Demand for lamb meat as well as his fully-grown ewes is very high, and he said he’s doing well in this “niche market.”
“I’ve had more calls for replacement ewes than I have in years, and I really can’t meet that demand,” Tammi said. “I got an email the other day from someone in India who was looking for some ewes.”
Joe Cloud, who co-owns T&E Meats in Harrisonburg, there’s a small and steady market for lamb at his butcher shop, largely because of its “ethnic” customer base, including Latino, Indian, Middle Eastern and Ethiopian families and restaurants.
“As compared to 10 years ago, there’s a lot more diverse ethnic cuisines available in the Valley,” Cloud said.
Cloud said the highest demand for lamb meat at his shop comes around Easter, but the cost for him to buy lamb has doubled in the past two years.
“You don’t get that much meat from a lamb,” said Cloud, adding he sells lamb legs at $6 per pound and lamb chops for $12 to $14 per pound. “I do get phone calls from people who are looking … to buy a whole lamb and they look what the price may be and they back off.”
He said few middle-class American families venture to buy it when beef and pork are considerably less expensive.
Wade Luhn, who owns Mockingbird in Staunton, said he loves to include local meat on his menu, but doesn’t expect he’ll be able to offer lamb again this year. His providers can no longer sell it to him at the same price.
That’s one reason Leo Tammi said sheep farmers can’t get too comfortable, because the current trend is unsustainable.
“I think we have to be very careful, because these high prices don’t help us to promote our product into some areas that wed like to target,” he said. “The sheep industry is looking to target young, middle-class families; these are people that are more adventurous in their dining. They’re looking for new recipes, new menus. When you have a product that’s very highly priced… Right now it’s difficult to break into that market.”
Tammi said sheep farmers should invest in raising more ewes for breeding instead of selling them off quickly as lamb. That way, he hopes, lamb’s availability will spread with its popularity while remaining affordable.