Walking with the Shepherds
By Lesley S. King
In a high meadow above the northern New Mexico villages of Los Ojos and Canjilon, Molly Manzanares shoos a lamb toward its mother, and from such an act of guardianship, a whole chain of events stems: the conscious growing of organic lamb and with it a lifestyle lost in all but the remotest parts of the world.
We’re in the high country with Molly and her husband Antonio, who own and run Shepherd’s Lamb. Both are strong and serious ranchers, but with smiles lurking beneath the surface. Before us their flock of churro and ramboulet sheep mills through tall grass. “The flavor is directly linked to what they eat,” Molly says.
“Sheep are browsers like deer,” adds Antonio. In contrast, he notes, cattle graze grass. “Sheep like herbs and nuts—they eat mountain mahogany, aspen shoots, and leaves off the snow berry bush.” He points to a plant with little white berries.
In fact, little commercial lamb has the luxury of such forage. Most sheep eat pasture grass or hay. And it’s this browsing that makes Shepherd’s Lamb so remarkable. Like a fine wine, it’s layered with rich flavors, even before the seasonings are added. “The sheep really get fat on acorns,” Molly adds.
Another factor in the flavor seems especially apparent here: kindness. Along with eating completely organic food, these sheep are raised with gentle hands. “Meat tenderness is most related to the last 24 hours of life,” says Antonio. “Minimum stress is important.”
Now we walk along through the grass, the sheep scattering down a broad meadow adorned with white yarrow blossoms. It’s a remarkable place, a hundred miles from the nearest city.
Molly and Antonio consciously chose this life that from here appears charmed, with the Yosemite-like Brazos Peaks in the distance and the sound of sheep bells jangling, but it’s a challenging task they’ve taken on. Both grew up here in the Chama area raising livestock—cattle, mostly, with some sheep in Antonio’s history. So they knew what they were getting into when they started.
What they didn’t bargain for was the challenge of making ends meet competing in a world of commercial livestock sales. For many years they tried raising and shipping their product the way most producers do—a sort of bulk-processing formula. “With that you’d ship once a year and have to make the money last all year,” says Antonio.
Raising four kids in such a system was a dismal prospect, so the Manzanares took a leap of faith and began direct marketing. The idea is that they grow out and process their own meat and sell it through farmers’ markets, organic grocery stores and directly to restaurants year-round. It’s a labor-intensive process. Once the meat is prepared, they drive long distances to sell it, including 125 miles to their most profitable venue, the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market.
The succulent flavor of the meat, with a hint of wildness, has won them a large following all over the region. “It’s been a good life for us,” says Antonio. “All four kids are in college, and they’ve benefited from living this way.”
The way is tied to the seasons. The process really begins in spring, when the lambs are born. Then the sheep are sheared in preparation for summer in the high country. Herding them up here is a five-day trip, with Molly, Antonio and the kids on horseback.
During the warm months, the flock remains with a lone shepherd, an alpaca and two Great Pyrenees guarding against coyotes and mountain lions. In the fall, the team herds and trailers the sheep back to the lowlands, where the lambs are weaned. After a few months, the rams are put in with the ewes to breed, and the cycle begins again.
Before us, the ewes and lambs frolic in the grass, their bells playing softly on the cool air that smells musky from their wool. Besides the ringing, the air is filled with a constant bleating, a calming sound out here, with the wind looping through it. It resonates in my head as we drive back down.
Antonio is more than familiar with it. “You spend a lot of time with them and you go inside and you still hear them,” he says. It’s something he couldn’t escape even if he wanted to. “I grew up on a ranch, and I didn’t ever want to do anything else.”