Thirty years ago Ed Martsolf began his bid to change the sheep industry. At the time, most sheep in the state of Arkansas were raised for the purpose of providing wool. Mr. Martsolf knew the market for wool was diminishing, but, he also knew a sheep market still remained largely untapped.  If Ed could build a flock of sheep with the single purpose of becoming seed stock to produce a mild tasting meat, he could tap the meat market for lamb. However, Ed knew that this flock could not be just another flock of wool producing sheep; his flock must be chemical free, hair sheep; Katahdin Hair sheep.  
"Many people in the area have tried lamb but were not impressed with the taste. Most likely that was because they ate lamb that was originally raised to produce wool. Wool sheep have a very strong taste," Ed said. According to him, wool sheep contain the chemical lanolin in their wool and this chemical also gets into the fat. The lanolin causes a very strong taste that most people do not enjoy.  
Ed realized that in order for people to enjoy the taste of lamb it must be lamb without a strong taste; a hair sheep, rather than a wool sheep.
He rounded up the remnants of a Katahdin Hair sheep flock and brought them to his Arkansas farm on top of Petit Jean Mountain. There, he started working with creating his idea of a perfect seed stock, which eliminated all chemicals from the flock. Ed started by not using any kind of fertilizer, weed killer or parasite control on his pastures or in his sheep.  He also eliminated all commercial feed from the flock’s diet.  Ed wanted to create a flock of seed stock that could be parasite resistant, and scrapie (a disease that can result in flock elimination by the Arkansas Poultry and Livestock Commission) resistant. He has successfully achieved both of these goals.
Ed explained that part of his success has been the elimination of chemicals from the sheep, but is also due to a Management Intensive Grazing program. He divides his sheep into small bans (around 150 to 200 sheep per ban) and grazes them for one week on a 10-acre paddock. At the end of the week, with the help of some farm workers, the sheep are moved to a fresh brush hogged paddock and their lightweight, plastic fencing is moved into place around the paddock. "The 10-acre paddocks are like your yard, the more you mow (graze) it the thicker it becomes,” he explained.
Ed claims that a small ban of sheep on a 10-acre paddock will not only thicken the acreage, but also control weeds through a natural process. Since the sheep are not given any commercial feed, there are no foreign seeds introduced into the paddock through the sheep manure. (He feeds a supplement, however it is not commercial. Ed said he mixes it from natural ingredients such as ground kelp and salt.) The process of moving sheep each week also controls the amount of pressure put on the ground, thus eliminating hard packed soil that stops the growth of natural grasses and provides a fresh, stress-free environment for the flock.
Ed takes the time to explain that through a series of carefully documented breeding experiments, he and a few other breeders have developed a “premium pasture animal and a grass-based feeding system that totally eliminates the need for any chemicals.” He provides no hormones, no steroids and no antibiotics, just good, natural Petit Jean Mountain grass.  Because of this success he assures his customers they are receiving a true "taste of the mountain." He also claims that the same sheep could be taken to some other location at birth and fed on different kinds of grasses from what is on the mountain, and the result would be a slightly different taste in the meat.
Petit Jean Farms has developed a grass-fed beef product as well. Ed said he will direct market between 25 and 50 head of grass-fed cattle a year. As for the breed, he has developed his own composite, an English base influenced with some Limousin or Charolais. "Our cattle are selected for what will grow best on our grass-fed system," he said.
The "farms" of Petit Jean Farms is four neighbors, who market their lamb, beef and pork together. "We are all small and we are all independent," Ed stressed. "But together we are able to leverage our products in this market."
Petit Jean Farms is always open to visitors. Ed is always eager to explain his process of sheep farming. He likes to explain to the public that by developing a premium flock of low maintenance sheep, he has achieved part of a goal to change the sheep industry, however, Martsolf headed off with these parting words, “there’s still plenty of work to be done, and the sun’s still up.”


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