|Utah ranchers Jamie and Linda Gillmor of Morgan Valley Lamb|
It was a bittersweet evening at Caputo's Market last week, as Jamie and Linda Gillmor of Morgan Valley Lamb were honored by members of Slow Food Utah and local restaurateurs. The Gillmors are closing down operations for their locally raised, all-natural, hormone-free lamb.
Jamie Gillmor said extended family members wanted to sell their grazing land along the mountainside of Morgan. "There are nine of us that own that property, with my cousins and siblings, and we decided as a group that it was time to sell," he said. "I'm still going to keep running livestock, but Morgan Valley Lamb is really labor-intensive for one guy to do with all the marketing and deliveries. I needed to focus on the task of marketing the property right now."
Three generations of the Gillmor family had been ranchers. But about 12 years ago, Jamie and Linda faced the economic facts of traditional ranching. Many had to hold second jobs to make ends meet. Most of the lamb was shipped off to the West or East coasts, and the Gillmors wanted more of their product to stay in Utah.
So they came up with a business plan to raise a high-end, "natural" lamb without using antibiotics or growth hormones. The lambs were fed an all-vegetarian diet — no animal by-products are in the feed. They gave the meat a brand name in the same way that Apple computers or Ben & Jerry's has name recognition.
The sheep were raised around the Delta area in the winter and pastured on the Gillmor's mountainside Morgan land in the summer. So they chose the name "because it's such as gorgeous valley, and 'Morgan Valley Lamb' just rolled off the tongue when we repeated it a few times," said Linda Gillmor.
The company used almost the same criteria as organic meat, but the couple chose not to go to the extra expense of becoming USDA-certified as organic. The term "natural" on a food label generally means it has no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.
They began going to the back doors of restaurants, a bag of lamb meat in hand. The timing was right, since "natural" and "local" were current buzzwords in fine dining. They had a booth at the Downtown Farmer's Market, where curious consumers wanted to know how their meat was produced. Harmon's was the first grocery chain to carry the meat.
And for more than ten years, "Morgan Valley Lamb" was proudly listed on menus at restaurants such as Bambara and Log Haven in Salt Lake City, Bistro 258 in Ogden, Snake Creek Grill in Heber, and Good Karma Restaurant in Park City. and many more. Ali Sabbah, owner of Mazza, used it extensively in his Middle Eastern menu, with lamb kebabs, lamb shanks, and ground lamb.
"We do a huge amount of lamb," said Sabbah, who was at the dinner. "We really counted on Jamie's lamb for a large portion of business."
Sabbah said he is exploring a few options such as the Niman Ranch brand. "I'm working with Jamie on to help me get a steady supply of lamb, because Jamie knows not only his business, but he's very knowledgeable about everybody else's business."
Sabbah praised Jamie Gillmor as "A true Western man, a rancher who is known for honesty. It's almost like a dying breed."
Morgan Valley Lamb was quickly embraced by the Slow Food movement, which was also gaining traction in Utah in the early 2000s. The international nonprofit's goal is to turn the tide of "fast food" by promoting local food traditions — farmers markets, artisan bread and cheeses, and regional cuisines. So it was fitting that about 100-150 members came together for a farewell potluck dinner at Caputo's Market, and gave a standing ovation to the Gillmors at the end of several tributes delivered to them.
Past Slow Food Utah president Christi Paulson said, "I remember the very first time I met Jamie and Linda at a Slow Food dinner. As time rolled on, they became my friends. They have been an integral part of bringing Salt Lake City's food community into a good place."
The Gillmors still have their Delta ranch and plan to stay involved in agriculture. Meanwhile, you can find Morgan Valley Lamb at Caputo's Market and Harmon's stores, while supplies last.