Lamb industry bounces back from initial pandemic slump

Virginia Gewin

Traditional Easter and Passover lamb-centered meals mark peak season for the often overlooked protein. But one year ago, the arrival of the pandemic sent the U.S. lamb industry into a tailspin.

Lockdowns had an immediate, catastrophic effect as holiday dinners suddenly became sad Zoom calls. The initial drop in demand at lamb's biggest time of year dealt a body blow to the industry. The second largest U.S. lamb processing plant, Mountain States Rosen in Greeley, Colorado, filed for bankruptcy on March 19, 2020.

At the time, the outlook for the rest of the year — when lamb sales rely heavily on restaurants and cruise ships, two sectors that were summarily crushed by COVID-19 — looked equally grim. By April 2020, live lamb prices had dropped by half.

Meat is displayed for sale at Kroger Marketplace in Versailles, Kentucky, on Nov. 24, 2020.

"We lost 50% of our sales overnight," said Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board, an industry lobby. "Approximately 15% of American lamb's food service sales went to travel and leisure," she explained. "In the first six months, our industry was in absolute panic."

Producers scrambled to make up the shortfall, but then something unexpected happened. Supermarket sales of all kinds of meat began to rise across the country, which was especially the case for lamb. Store sales jumped 28% year-over-year as of last month, according to Nielsen, while beef sales rose 25.6% and pork sales increased 20.5% over the same period.

One year on from the first lockdowns, the pandemic has shown that demand for lamb can be strong, said Benny Cox, senior salesman at Producers Livestock Auction in San Angelo, Texas.

Lamb is traditionally pricier than other proteins, which is one reason pre-pandemic shoppers tended to avoid it.

Rack of lamb or lamb loin chops are among the most expensive cuts — currently at around $12.76 per pound and $13.08 per pound, respectively. Meanwhile a boneless ribeye steak is $9.83 per pound. The 2021 wholesale price for boxed lamb loins is about 33% higher than the 2015-2019 average. By comparison, wholesale beef ribeye prices are up only 5% this year compared with the 2015-2019 average.

Still, lamb has been saddled with a bad rap in the U.S. ever since World War II, when returning servicemen wanted nothing to do with it after years of canned mutton. "We're still a niche protein when compared to beef, pork or chicken," said Anders Hemphill, vice president of marketing at Superior Farms based in Colorado. Typically, he said, "Americans eat 60 pounds of beef, 100 pounds of chicken, 50 pounds of pork — and 1.1 pounds of lamb."

But that number has been steadily rising in recent years — up from a low of 0.6 pounds per person in 2011, he said. "The pandemic has caused that number to bump up more," Hemphill said.

So why the lockdown renaissance? Adventurous millennial eaters and home chefs willing and able to spend more time cooking have fueled a good portion of retail demand, said Cox. Hemphill cited market surveys that showed lamb was mentioned most often by young adults in the years leading up to the pandemic.

But there's another factor that's been boosting lamb's popularity in recent years — growing demand among first-generation Americans from the Middle East and southern Europe, where lamb is closer to a staple. "Between 30-50% of the lambs in the U.S. are going to non-traditional market," said Reid Redden, director of the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at San Angelo, Texas.

During the pandemic, "ethnic markets really stepped in and took quite a chunk of supply," said Brad Boner, vice president of the American Sheep Industry Association.

Lamb grown in the U.S. — primarily in Texas, California, Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota — is increasingly being used to serve this burgeoning segment, one in which consumers favor a smaller, leaner animal. In Texas over the last two decades, ranchers have transitioned to growing breeds better suited for the market.

The rise of several Mediterranean fast casual restaurants, including Cava, with 110 outposts, and Taziki's, with 92 locations, has also helped fuel demand. In just 12 years, Taziki's spread across much of the Southeast. Partnering with the American Lamb Board late last year, the company reported an 11.3% increase in sales of their lamb-based menu items compared with 2020. The lamb gyro is a top selling menu item.

And while it's nevertheless been a rough year for ranchers, "there is optimism," said Cox. As COVID-19 increased retail sales last summer, Superior Farms invested millions of dollars to get facilities ramped up to meet the retail demand, Hemphill said. One lesson learned from the pandemic, he explained, is that survival is "about being nimble and able to adapt quickly."

One year after the coronavirus landed on America in earnest, with tight supply and restored demand, sales for Passover and Easter are on solid footing. "We're seeing record prices," said Tyler Cozzens, an agricultural economist at the Livestock Marketing Information Center.

But what will happen when things return to normal, and people start going to the office and eating out again?

"Once restaurants open up, how much will retail sales fall off? Will we be able to meet demand of food service if retail remains high?" asks Hemphill. "There's still a lot of uncertainty."

Tazikis Chief Operating Officer Mike Smith is keeping a eye on lamb prices — expecting them to go up. Their gyro sells for $11 in most markets, but if lamb prices go up, it could be hard to pass that cost on to the consumer, he said. "Unless (U.S. producers start farming lamb in additional areas, I don't know how it keeps up with growing demand over the next 10-20 years," said Smith.

For now, lamb industry insiders are content that the pandemic didn't decimate an industry. And even if the bump producers experienced over the past year flattens out, it's placed the segment on the right path.

"A silver lining from all of this would be increased long-term demand for lamb," Smith said.