Appraising the conclave of recent 4-H alums, wayfaring divorcees, cowboy-booted Texans and belt-buckled Montanans gathered in a snug Charleston Marriott meeting room, a grinning Burdell Johnson declared: "This is the future of the sheep industry."

The fourth-generation sheep producer then opened the Young Entrepreneurs' session of the American Sheep Industry Association's annual convention by joking he wasn't able to secure a get-rich-quick speaker, and waving attendees toward a buffet of pepperoni pizza, Caesar salad and cannolis. As the organization's president later confirmed, even professional shepherds can't afford lamb for lunch.

Lamb costs 43 percent more than beef, and three times as much as chicken, which helps explain why consumption of U.S. lamb has nosedived over the past few decades. In the 1940s, per capita annual consumption stood at nearly five pounds. Now, even with the influx of immigrants from countries where lamb is a reigning protein, consumption is less than one-third of a pound, which equals one chop a year.

"Unfortunately, the American consumer has totally gravitated toward the cheapest protein," says Border Springs Farm's Craig Rogers, who sells his lamb to Charleston restaurants, including FIG and Cypress.

But cost isn't the only cause of the industry's troubles. According to a strategy report unveiled at the convention, the domestic lamb industry also has been battered by wildly fluctuating prices, which impel farmers to let their sheep get old and fat before slaughter; a nearly nonexistent promotional budget; packing houses' failure to police quality; and an enduring schism among farmers, processors and buyers. And like every other segment of the livestock trade, the industry has to contend with declining interest in meat-eating and skies that have refused to yield rain since 2012.

If the industry doesn't make "aggressive changes" to correct the crisis, the report warns, Johnson's optimism may be misplaced: The prospective sheep farmers gathered for his workshop can look forward to the imminent collapse of existing supply chains and imports from Australia and New Zealand, which already account for half of U.S. consumption, gobbling up 80 percent of the market.

"We're not going to be able to compete against a country that's marketing lamb as a single co-op with government assistance," Rogers says of the sheep powerhouse across the Pacific. "You saw how fast the textile industry shrunk in South Carolina. It doesn't take long for these foreign countries to suck the life out of an entire industry."

A direct answer

Unlike his peers out west, who oversee massive ranches and deliver their sheep to livestock auctions, Rogers runs a relatively tiny operation in Patrick Springs, Va., not far from the Blue Ridge Parkway. He sells his sheep directly to chefs and consumers, sometimes using his Twitter feed to advertise available cuts.

The strategy report doesn't recommend that every sheep farmer transition to Rogers' style of doing business, which is fueled by a healthy dose of myth-making: His four-day summer party, Lambstock, is a messy, boozy celebration of sheep carcasses and homegrown music.

Although there aren't any formal invitations, it's aimed at chefs and their coteries, much like his semi-secret Lambs N Clams cookout at the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival.

But even farmers who have no intention of ever joining a chefs' drum circle can borrow from Rogers' model, says Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board.

"There's a lot to be learned from that sector," Wortman says, adding that when the committees working on the strategy report quizzed farmers who run microscopic herds by western standards, "there was an 'a ha' moment for a lot of the traditional guys, saying, 'You're not having these problems?' "

What the successful latter-day sheep farmer has mastered, according to Wortman, is quality control, a result of working with custom processors and having to face their customers.

"If I were to send substandard lamb to Sean Brock or Mike Lata, I'm going to get a phone call within minutes," Rogers says. "They hold me accountable."

Sheep farmers working outside the traditional ranch structure also have done a better job of urging buyers to look beyond price and emphasizing humane handling methods, Wortman says.

Those factors matter because unless the U.S. cracks down on Australian imports, which are now needed to fulfill current demand, the domestic sheep industry doesn't have a chance of producing the lowest-priced lamb in the butcher case. The strategy report calls on farmers to adjust their "value propositions" by stressing nutrition, trendiness and sustainability.

"We don't want to make a cheaper product," Rogers says. "We want to make it more special. Take a look at the approach the textile industry in South Carolina has taken: It's now finding all of the high-value niches. It's no longer producing the bulk that South Carolina was known for 40 years ago. It's coming up with the best sock, or the best undergarment."

Enter Clammer Dave

The strategy report describes direct marketers as "fiercely independent," a fairly good characterization of Dave "Clammer Dave" Belanger, who supplies clams and oysters to more than a dozen restaurants, including many of the restaurants that buy Rogers' lamb.

Belanger last fall put out the word that he was adding lamb to his repertoire, intuitively following the recommendations contained in the not-yet-released report. "In the commodity business, the only way to make money is a tractor trailer load," he says. "This is boutique. We don't have to do volume."

Although the strategy report is brimming with praise for direct marketers, who are concentrated on the East Coast, it identifies a few challenges facing the niche. Fiercely independent sheep farmers aren't very good at getting along: "Not many of us trust each other," an anonymous producer is quoted as saying.

Belanger and Rogers aren't yet publicly flinging insults at each other's products, but Belanger is quick to distinguish his lamb from Border Springs lamb. "It's milder," he says. "The taste is different, the muscling is different."

Despite his local association with shellfish, Belanger has a longer history with sheep farming. For 12 years, he managed 5,000 Virginia acres. "Two mountains come together in a 'V,' and the farm was right in the middle," he says. The area comprised a dozen or so family farms.

"The deal is they do some stuff they've done for generations," Belanger says.

That includes selling their lambs at livestock auctions, where the meat gets mixed up with meat from lambs who didn't spend their young lives gamboling over mountain passes or feasting on bluegrass and clover. "There's no recognition they're premium in quality," Belanger says.

Because they climb as much as 1,500 feet a day, the lambs are fairly lean, but Belanger says their rich diet makes up for the lack of fat.

Two grocery store chains previously tried to source lambs from the family farms, but were ultimately tripped up by logistics. Belanger, though, wasn't daunted by the endeavor's small scale. From October to December, he sold 10 lambs a week, and plans to restart selling in June, embracing the seasonality that lamb industry leaders say is critical to the survival of their trade.

"I don't need to rely on the Charleston market," he says. "But since Charleston has become a product development lab, if it goes well here, it will go well anywhere."

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.