Oregon’s Willamette Valley has become a global center for pinot noir wine. And at one pinot vineyard, you’ll find Mike Atherton and Vicki Avery’s lambs dotting the steep-sloped hillsides, helping to keep the grasses trimmed and the ecosystem healthy. Raised entirely on pasture grass, this mild-flavored lamb is perfect seared over high heat to medium-rare and served with red wine — preferably a Willamette Valley pinot.
Farmer Mike Atherton thinks of himself as a “back-to-the-land” kind of guy. After growing up overseas, he moved from DC to Tennessee to Denver, where he ran an ecology magazine called Dear Earth. Eventually, he settled in Oregon’s Willamette Valley with his wife Vicki Avery, where for over thirty years they’ve been raising antibiotic-free lamb on the banks of the Luckiamute River. They were anti-feedlot before it was popular, because as Mike explains it, “for sheep, grain is the absolute wrong end of the food chain.” It’s harder work to raise lambs on a grass-only diet, but it pays off with a deliciously mild flavor.
Vicki Avery and Mike Atherton weren’t drawn to farming because it was easy. “If it were,” Vicki says, “everyone would be doing it. You have to have a passion for the lifestyle, and for the stewardship of the animals and the land.” That land focus has driven Atherton Farm since it began. The small farm straddles the Little Luckiamute River in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and long ago Vicki took the sections of the farm that abut the river out of working commission, and instead planted trees along its edge to provide buffer area and wildlife habitat. “We think in long-term goals,” Vicki told us, “which means planning for how to keep our land sustainable over our whole lives.”