meet the rancher
A Superior way of life
Nation’s largest lamb company relies on local, family-owned ranches.
Written by Debbie Arrington
Photos courtesy of Superior Farms
S heep graze on the Emigh Livestock ranchlands in the Montezuma Hills near Rio Vista on the Sacramento River much as they have done for more than 140 years. Except now, the flock shares its pasture with giant, power-producing windmills.
“My great-great grandfather settled here,”says Ryan Mahoney, Emigh Livestock’s ranch manager and a fifth-generation sheep rancher. “That was 1877. We ranch on the same property. I grew up in Rio Vista, working on this ranch.”Mahoney, 34, joined the family business in 2006 after graduating from Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif. A religious studies major, he seriously thought about leaving sheep. He recalls lots of hard work as a youngster, clearing fields of stickers and other farm chores. “My folks sat me down and gave me a job offer,” he says. “I figured it was my best opportunity, and it was the best decision of my life. I’m so glad I came back.”Mahoney and his wife, Kelli, are rearing their own children — McKayla, 9; Emily, 7; and Connor, 4 — to be the next generation of sheep ranchers. “To be able to take them out to the ranch and share this lifestyle, it’s the greatest thing I can do for the future,” Mahoney says. “The thing I love most about my job is I get to be part of this great story of our ranch.”A perfect partnership The Mahoneys annually raise about 4,000 spring lambs for Sacramento-based Superior Farms. After weaning, the lambs move from Rio Vista to clover pastures in Dixon, also the home to Superior’s handling facilities.
“Our lambs stay in Solano County their whole lives,” Mahoney says. The meat stays local, too. “When we go to Raley’s, my kids know that’s our lamb (in the meat case),” he says. Working with more than 1,000 ranchers nationwide, Superior processes about 700,000 lambs annually, explains Lesa Eidman, Superior Farms’ director of producer resources and sustainability. Employee owned, Superior Farms is the nation’s largest lamb company, accounting for about a third of all USDA lamb. An electronic grading system and other innovations allow Superior to track every lamb from birth to harvest. “Electronic grading is a great tool,” Eidman says. “You get information on meat quality and quantity that’s actually usable. We give that information back to the producers so they can better manage their flocks. It lets them know what they’re doing right or could do better, their feed, their genetics. You can see if a certain ram gives you a bigger lamb chop.”“Superior Farms is such a great resource for us as ranchers,” Mahoney says. “This technology lets us better manage the husbandry of the animal and also reduces antibiotic use. Superior Farms put up a lot of the money (for new technology) and that pays off for the rancher. We can’t afford to do these things on our own.”Combined with that innovation are old-school shepherding, sustainability, and diversity of production. For example, Mahoney’s Rambouillet ewes annually produce 12 pounds of fine wool apiece. Ranchers are stewards of the land, Mahoney says, so “[t]he healthier the environment, the healthier the animal. Then your animals take care of you.”Millennials like himself are learning to love lamb, or at least to experiment with this healthy and locally produced red meat, he adds.
“How do you get people to eat more lamb? Follow me on Instagram (@Californiasheeprancher),” Mahoney says. “The great thing about us Millennials? We all love trying new things.”Mahoney says lamb is easy to cook. “It’s a healthy, local, beautiful product. And there are more options now,” he says. “Our family eats ground lamb at least twice a week, in meatloaf, meatballs, or burgers. Mix ground lamb half and half with beef; it’s better for you than the average all-beef burger, and it tastes better, too.”Looking for cold-weather options? Lamb shanks are perfect for slow-cooked winter meals. “Italian lamb shanks are my go-to recipe in winter — slow roasted and falling apart over creamy polenta,” Eidman says. “If I start cooking on a Sunday, this is what I make.”
Superior Farms lamb is available at Nugget Markets, Raley’s, Bel Air, Walmart, and other Sacramento-area supermarkets. For details, visit Superiorfarms.com.
Italian Lamb Shanks (courtesy of Lesa Eidman, director of producer resources and sustainability, Superior Farms in Sacramento. Serves 4) 4 American lamb shanks Salt and pepper, to taste 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil 2 sweet onions, peeled and sliced 1 red pepper, cored, seeded, and sliced 4 cloves garlic, minced 1, 6-ounce can tomato paste 1, 8-ounce can tomato purée 1 cup chicken stock 1 cup Italian red wine 1 teaspoon dried rosemary 1 teaspoon dried basil 1 teaspoon dried oregano 1 teaspoon dried thyme Fresh basil for garnish Fresh lemon juice Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Season lamb shanks generously with salt and pepper. In Dutch oven over medium heat, heat olive oil and sear lamb 2 to 3 minutes per side until meat starts to turn light brown with a nice sear. Remove lamb from Dutch oven. Add onions and peppers and cook 2 to 3 minutes until they start to soften. Add garlic and sauté about 1 minute. Add chicken stock, red wine, tomato purée, and tomato paste to pot, scraping off any brown bits from lamb as you mix in liquids. Add dried rosemary, basil, oregano, and thyme, and stir until well combined. Put lamb shanks back into Dutch oven in liquid mixture and cover. Braise in oven at 325 degrees F for 2 hours, turning lamb every 30 minutes. Serve with creamy Parmesan polenta. Garnish lamb shanks with fresh lemon juice and fresh basil.
Creamy Parmesan Polenta (courtesy of Lesa Eidman, director of producer resources and sustainability, Superior Farms in Sacramento. Serves 4) 1 cup polenta (cornmeal) 3 tablespoons butter 3 cloves garlic, minced 4 cups chicken broth ⅓ cup Parmesan cheese, shredded Salt and pepper, to taste Melt butter in medium saucepan. Add minced garlic and cook about 1 minute. Add chicken broth and bring to a boil. Once boiling, slowly add polenta, about ⅓ cup at a time. Stir to combine. Reduce heat to medium and cook 15 to 25 minutes, stirring every few minutes until polenta has thickened to desired consistency. Stir in cheese; season with salt and pepper.