If there’s one thing Valerie Samutin enjoys, it’s shepherding and farming lambs and raising sustainable lamb products for Kentuckians to enjoy. If there’s another, it’s talking about lambs.
“I love lamb,” she tells Insider. “There’s nothing more beautiful or peaceful to look at than a flock of sheep.”
Her love of these animals, as well as the meat they yield, began around 2010, and her decision to found Freedom Run Farm, located in Shelbyville, came inadvertently through a memorable lamb meal.
It was the wedding feast she and her husband George enjoyed, which consisted of lamb marinated for 48 hours in pomegranate juice, garlic and herbs, and roasted on an open fire.
When they decided to recreate that meal, they discovered they couldn’t find the organic, grass-fed meat they wanted. That led to Samutin to begin learning everything she could about lambs and sustainable farming, leaving behind her job in real estate in Chicago and relocating to Kentucky.
Today, Freedom Run Farm raises roughly 100 lambs at a time from birth to slaughter. The breed she raises are Katahdin sheep, which not only are indigenous to America, but also an Appalachian heritage breed.
Some of the Katahdin meat comes to Louisville to be served in restaurants like Proof on Main, Harvest, Rye, Lilly’s, Volare, as well as places like Red Hog and Kingsley’s Meat Market.
“And the list is growing, which is cool,” Samutin says.
But she eyes a bigger goal, which is to help re-establish Kentucky as a premier supplier of lamb.
“Lamb is something that has been way too forgotten for way too long,” she says. “Kentucky used to be known up and down the eastern seaboard as the quality lamb. I am aiming to bring that back.”
To that end, Samutin has helped organize a state lamb consortium that operates through the farm, uniting fellow farmers as well as restaurant owners and other stakeholders as a way of keeping the production of highest-quality lamb always available.
Only a partnership, she believes, will make the goal she’s created an eventual reality.
It may be an uphill battle. The farm almost failed at one point due to complications from a parasite that had infected the flock. That battle was won, but she also notes that the entire annual budget for the American Lamb Board is $2.5 million.
By contrast, she says, Beef + Lamb New Zealand, the leading nation in lamb production, has a $6.5 million budget just for advertising.
But she has seen movement. Not only has the number of restaurants around the state begun buying and serving more lamb, options are now more flexible — a restaurant can buy a whole lamb, or they can buy custom cuts, depending on what they intend to serve.
Freedom Run Farms also has a customer in the University of Kentucky, which provides lamb in many forms to athletic programs and students alike.
“We’re serving 300 to 500 pounds per month of lamb from Valerie’s farm,” says Carolyn Gahn, sustainability manager for University of Kentucky Dining. “We have lamb burgers on the grill daily in addition to other grilled meats. We also use whole roasted lamb on our carving station.”
Not only has the addition been well received by students in the recently opened student dining center, it also is part of a commitment by the university to help support Kentucky agriculture.
“We provide a market for farmers that allows them to scale up,” explains Gahn. As for the student body, she says, “I think the proximity to their food resonates. I think it really hits home, and they’re proud of that.”
Education efforts continue growing as well, as evidenced by an event — Louisville Lamb Jam — on Sunday, April 8, at 21c Museum Hotel, which will include not only education on the commonwealth’s lamb heritage, but also a full-scale butchering demo, info on nose-to-tail menu creation, and samples of lamb-based dishes.
Also, at Freedom Run, Samutin says lambs are truly raised in a natural state — in the open air. A pair of Akbash, Turkish herding dogs, help watch over the flock, keeping them safe from predators like coyotes and turkey buzzards.
Samutin spends a lot of time in the pastures with her flocks as well, knows when new ones are born and generally makes herself part of their lives, which usually range from six to eight months, aside from the breeding stock.
“They have an amazing life,” she says. “They enjoy fresh air and sunshine. When they’re weaned, they go off to another part of the farm that is as stress-free as possible. They’re outside, and they enjoy a very balanced, high-quality grain and forage program that is our own proprietary formula.”
All of these components coming together is how Samutin believes Kentucky lamb will grow back into what it once was. Well, that and the flavor and healthfulness of the meat, whether it’s milk-braised and served with cheddar grits, mustard greens at Rye, served with eggplant and quail egg at Proof, or as a meatball at Harvest.
“I think the lamb industry has been totally obliterated, and it’s really time to bring it back,” she adds. “I think there’s incredible room for growth, and I think once people have tried fully finished lamb, they’re going to be a lamb lover for the rest of their life. We’re poised to make lamb cool again.”