Our first year selling lamb at a larger scale is almost over. Time for an honest assessment of how our year has gone.
Our initial plan was to build both retail and wholesale capacity in Boston and New York. We contacted several wholesalers and have one wholesale company to partner with.
We have also made sales in Boston and Holyoke, Massachusetts.
But so far, retail sales have been mainly to friends and family. We have not developed ways to reach out in Boston. My sister lives in Boston, but her friends and coworkers are mainly Hindu vegetarians. I don’t really feel appropriate asking family to do my outreach for me in any case.
Wholesale has been a non-mover- I have not made any sales through our wholesale partner, nor have I had much success in getting our lamb into restaurants or stores near here. The main issue is that my retail prices are really the best prices I can offer. Even dropping base prices a dollar or two leaves retailers adding a 50-100% markup, pricing my lamb above (non-Welfare Certified, often imported) competitors.
The one bright spot of growth has been in my third-choice outlet: Farmer’s Markets. We had tremendous success at Montpelier and today at the Craftsbury Holiday Market. I want to pursue these markets, but they are frequently scheduled at the same times and many have established lamb vendors and are not accepting new lamb vendors. Further, going to markets in Vermont doesn’t really help to spread the word. Vermont is fundamentally saturated for lamb sales
How can I reach consumers out-of-state more effectively?
I really want to understand what is behind all of the meal-kit and meal-replacement services proliferating in my Facebook and Instagram feeds right now.
When I started raising sheep, we were at the height of post-Omnivore’s Dilemma. Farmer’s Markets were peaking in popularity, and it felt like I’d have no trouble selling my products. Small farms were popping up all around Vermont, while stores struggled to catch up with the rising demand for locally produced food. “Loca(l)vore” was still a word in use?
Fast forward to now: One of our local farmer’s markets has posted another year of declining sales and revenues. It is challenging to get a balance of vendors (meat, cheese, veggies, prepared foods and crafts) because the sales balance keeps moving towards prepared foods and away from wholesome vegetables. Once all of the vegetable vendors are gone, the market morphs into a street fair with food.
Meanwhile, just offhand, I can think of Sunbasket, BlueApron, Hellofresh, Marley Spoon, Soylent and umpteen other meal or meal-replacement kits. Many of them have such similar names and ads that I can’t help but suppose that they are A/B marketing tests where sellers are trying two different names with the same kits behind them. How many of these kits have you seen using paid blog placement and clickbait websites for promotion?
I know I am just ranting but I want to you feel how disheartening it is to be producing food with my own hard labor and then to see such aggressive promotion of food entirely disconnected from place, from farmer and from carbon footprints. How much carbon goes into the individual plastic wrapping, boxing and shipping? I admit that I can’t even feel good about Sizzlefish or Butcherbox- both feed the disconnect between farmer and the eater.
Of course, none of this is cheap – per meal, these kits are generally more expensive than homemade but a bit cheaper than a restaurant meal. You don’t have to read too far into the comments to find complaints about shipping times, food condition, and rotten food mixed in with questions about allergens and sourcing.
Does the aggressive promotion of this new food paradigm reflect a new food culture? Does the proliferation of such enterprises reflect their actual popularity, or just the whims of venture capital? How ironic to consider that VC would never touch a business like mine, old-fashioned lift-and-carry-it sheep farming, but would love to disrupt how the food is distributed, taking dollars out of my hands and the consumers in the process.
I am curious whether people are actually subscribing to these, and what their experiences are really like. More than one source finds that people unsubscribe at high rates from meal kit services. Are people going back to cooking at home from scratch? If you subscribe to my food-oriented Instagram, cloverworksfarmkitchen, you’ll see that I cook on cast iron and render my own lard. Working from home, I can plan to make meals where I braise tough meats for hours on end. That makes me an outlier among outliers, I know, and also puts me in a tricky position as I try to offer my products to people with more typical cooking habits and schedules.
As always, I am interested in hearing your thoughts!
If you follow this blog or my Instagram feed closely, you know that we got geese this year. They started as nine tiny weird-ducks. We let them outside, they lived with the lambs for a while, and then we left them to their own devices.
Thus freed, the geese spent their days honking about the yard. While nibbling grass and “contributing fertility”, they rewired the hay baler a bit and nibbled on the trim of Matt’s car. They came out to intimidate strangers, but also ran at the slightest hint of anyone trying to catch them. A few times, they took off from the height of land where the house is situated, trying to fly. Our neighbor commented that if they were planning to fly south, they weren’t likely to get much further than South Craftsbury (10 mi away).
Some research and a bunch of intent goose-staring led us to conclude that we had the usual straight-run combination of 2 geese and 7 ganders. There’s no use in keeping so many ganders. On a cold, sleety morning at 6am, we rounded up our geese in the dark and tried to ID our two females. We picked them up and tossed them out, then loaded five ganders into some pet crates to go to Masse Poultry, where we said our goodbyes. While geese and ducks are often challenging to pluck clean, ours came out fantastically tidy.
On to the cooking. After being honked at and harassed by our own livestock, I was ready to try eating a goose for the first time. Consulting the internet, I decided to go for “low and slow” to achieve a perfect medium cooking on the breast meat, and took the internet’s advice about separating the legs from the carcass and cooking them longer. Readers: Charles Dickens was right. Goose is amazing! Overcooked, I’m sure it would taste like an old shoe, but done just medium, it’s like extra-rich roast beef. And the grease is nothing to waste! I cooked brussels sprouts and potatoes in the grease I ladled from the pan. They were heavenly – rich and decadent but still somehow light.
This post should have been part of a series of posts where we prepare for Rhinebeck, talk about our journey getting our stock together, and then go.
I didn’t get that done. Picture me weighing and packaging just-finished roving from the flock the night before I left, because that’s about the pace things were taking.
We had already been invited to display our Bluefaced Leicester sheep in the breed barn, so we were committed to bringing sheep to the venue. Then, we found out we would have a substitute vending space – awesome! Except that we didn’t really have enough yarn to fill out a booth, so we would have to try to do some in-fill. Fortunately, Kingdom Fleece and Fiberworks had some space in their processing calendar, so we had the lambs shorn and sent their soft, beautiful fleeces to Elizabeth.
So I left Vermont at 5am on Friday with 17 lbs of roving and 25 lbs of yarn in the truck cab, my display for both my booth and the BFL breed display in the bed of the truck, and two lambs for the breed display in the trailer. I picked up some Icelandics in need of a ride down in Duxbury, and arrived at Rhinebeck right at 1pm. I wish that Google Maps had a setting for navigation with a trailer. I wasn’t keen to pay Thruway tolls for trailering, and I also had to keep de-selecting routes that used the Taconic Parkway (trailers not permitted there). Did you get that, Google? Good.
Setting up went quickly once Mom arrived, and before we knew it Saturday morning arrived. I thought that the attendees might come in at a jogging pace, but we weren’t near any of the “hot” vendors so we were just casually populated with shoppers until our booth felt full. Kind helpers from Ravelry joined us to help answer questions and guide customers. I owe a big thank you to Liz, Nance and Betsy for getting us food and water, and to Alisa and Alison for answering key Rhinebeck questions and being ready with a good phone charger.
We observed some interesting outcomes in our booth. We sold more kep patterns with our Northern Borders yarn than we did mitten patterns with our Derby Line yarn. Colors seem to be hit or miss with different crowds, but I will be planning on making more solid colors next year, even though variegated yarn is FUN! We will have notecards for sale on the site soon. Mom enjoyed interacting with fellow Kep-makers from her Facebook based Kep group and just chatting about the sheep and knitting. Mom really makes the booth possible, since she is the real fiber expert on staff.
Sunday was a bit of a letdown, mainly because I will freely admit that our booth looked picked-over after Saturday and we were quite low on yarn. We didn’t have all of the colors and kits that people wanted to buy available. Good information for next year, when I anticipate having twice as much yarn made for a nice, lush booth.
It is a real credit to the organizational skills of Rhinebeck managers that the show ended at 4 pm but it only took an hour and change to pack Mom up with all of the booth contents and fixtures, and then 45 minutes more for me to pick up the sheep and take them home. This will be my last year bringing sheep to Rhinebeck, so next year will be much more straightforward.
Poor 1616. When I saw her this morning, I thought she must just have some lingering frost on her nose. But closer inspection showed that she in fact had a dozen porcupine quills stuck in her nose!
My working theory is that the porcupine came to dine on the salt I put out for the ewes. If you ate grass all day, wouldn’t it be better with a bit of seasoning? The ewes think so. Anyhow, 1616 is one of my bolder Border Leicesters, so if anyone were likely to attempt a porcupine inspection, it would be her. I felt bad leaving her, but two attempts to catch her had her wary of me. I can’t outrun a sheep, so I have to outsmart them.
Cue Matt, some pliers and the grain-bucket. We shook the grain and got a whole group of ewes to converge. Then, it was just a matter of grabbing 1616 by a leg and sitting her on her bum for extraction. She didn’t even wince as I plucked the spines out. We are lucky that they weren’t lodged deeply and I am reasonably sure that she will be just fine.
Meanwhile, the rams are on-duty and we will expect our first lambs on or around March 1st. With the Bluefaced Leicesters in the barn and the Border Leicesters on pasture, we will have purebred registered stock from both breeds available next year. I have a lot of interest in Bluefaced Leicester lambs, but I know that for many Vermont shepherds, especially ones with larger commercial ambitions, the Border Leicesters would be an excellent choice.
Bob has been pretty low-key with his Border girls, but Fred has been sniffing and chasing a bunch. On the 20th, we will take Fred and Bob out and put Hooligan or Oliver in with the Blues(depending on whether or not Hooligan is sold) and Samson in with the Borders. We won’t have any early lambs this year, and we will also avoid late ones. Rams will be out by December 15th this time.
Preparations for Rhinebeck are well underway as we also admire the beauty of peak foliage. There’s nothing more wonderful than a perfect, glorious fall.
A while ago, I had thought to put in my application for a booth at Rhinebeck (formally, the New York State Sheep and Wool Gathering) because I had heard that it could take a decade to get a booth. So I figured I’d just send applications their way for a few years while I put together a schedule of fiber festivals where I can sell my yarn.
So imagine my surprise when an email arrives on Monday from the Rhinebeck organizers saying that they have a need for some substitute vendors, and would I like to sell yarn at the festival? YES!
So I am going to be a Rhinebeck vendor this year, provided the State of New York processes my application for a Tax ID. But I will assume that that will happen and I’ll be on my way to put some sheep in the breed barn and then we will set up our booth in a location TBD.
It is that time of year again! We are headed to the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival, where we have 350 skeins of Border Leicester yarn to sell along with many other fiber goodies.
For starters, both my Northern Borders and Derby Line yarns have been selling well. Even though the Montpelier Farmer’s Market isn’t an ideal venue for selling an item specific to the small part of the population that knits, the yarn colors and the tactile joy of touching yarn draw visitors in. In fact, I have sold enough yarn that I need to consider dyeing additional yarn to round out my color availability. My concern is not having the right amounts of the colors people want most. Sales at the farmer’s market have depleted some of my colors!
Another significant offering this year is hats. Specifically, this Kep design that my mother has developed. Keps are a traditional slouchy Fair Isle hat that features our Northern Borders yarn nicely. Mom has cranked out six hats, while I am still working on hat number one. She is really a knitting powerhouse.
I also have gobs of BFL wool that wants dyeing and final touches. Good thing Great British Bakeoff is available again!
The to-do list for the sheep is no shorter. Ten lambs ship on 9/27, breeding groups need to be arranged next week, and everyone gets a Selenium shot because our soils are very deficient. That is a whole lot of work!
Just some fun farm facts that are on my mind right now:
Sixty percent of all sheep photos look like this, or the sheep are little specks in the distance. They don’t like to be in any of the space between bonking into you and escaping your visual field.
This is how your sneakers will look after 4 months of use. I can’t wear boots for the time being, so I’m using sneakers well beyond their design parameters. I won’t even start to describe how they smell, suffice it to say I leave them on the porch when I visit people.
Everytime you see your fencebirb, you will think “I need to ID that bird” but you never will. I can tell she’s a finch of some sort. Another note to fencebirbs- do not waste your time moving two or three sections away when I am picking up fence. If I am picking up fence, you will just need to find another perch entirely. I hate “chasing” you down the fencerow while I do my work because I don’t like to waste your time.
Sometimes, you feed your livestock and they still don’t want to be friends. I haven’t yet held any of the newborn chicks from our mama hen. They resent the idea that they are domesticated in any way.
This sweet Border ewe is the only one of the lot who wants me to pet her. So I oblige whenever possible.
Fred lives for petting. He and Matt have a special man-friendship. I love Fred’s pretty eyes and sweet disposition, but I love his perfect build the most!
Steven realized that he is a sheep, not a person, but he still loves a good hug here and there. We are so glad for his improved health and progress after so many close calls.
Having acquired our final group of ewes we plan to purchase, our flock is at full strength. Such numbers require that I move pasture frequently, especially with the dry summer we have had. Grass growth is stunted and we are moving the sheep off our land and onto land borrowed from neighbors.
Meanwhile, one of our Rhode Island Red hens took the depopulation of the flock from raccoon predation seriously enough that she decided to sit on a clutch of eggs. We were afraid that engaging in social media would jinx this, especially since RIRs are not well-known as broody hens, but she was a determined lady and now we have nine little chicks! I have never had a successful broody before, and we’ve been checking them like excited children would.
We’re ramping up to breeding season with a concerted effort to improve everyone’s nutrition and plans for a hoof-trimming day tomorrow. I’ll be going to bed early tonight to ready myself. The rams are banished to a distant patch up the road to keep them from hopping the fence to talk to the girls. Our plan is to put the BFLs in the barn feeding on hay, and the borders in the fields eating the last of the grasses as winter looms. We will keep them outdoors until the ground freezes (we can’t put the portable fenceposts into frozen ground- I know from experience!). More lambs are planned for March!
So the other major preparation for breeding season is cleaning out the barn. We’ve let the bedded pack dry and ferment as long as we could under cover, but now it needs to go out. We considered our manure pile placement very carefully, selecting a place far from drainage areas and where any runoff would be primarily absorbed by the soil before hitting waterways. Matt likes some good tractor work now and then, though this task is no easy feat.
Our skies are hazy with smoke from Western fires. Earlybird trees are starting their transition. We are also making final preparations for some fiber festivals coming up.
I had my goods for sale at Montpelier for the first time yesterday. I still have a lot to learn about effectively selling my goods.
Don’t forget your tent! The market was on Saturday morning. On Friday evening that I realized that my pop-up tent was 150 miles away in Keene, NH with my parents. Oops. I didn’t get a sunburn but I did have to model my rather dweeby hat that I wear while doing fieldwork. I always wear a hat because sunscreen just melts off me in a river of sweat while I work.
I still have a “Meat and Yarn Don’t Mix” issue. My booth had a lot of yarn-based visual appeal, which attracted yarn lovers. But the Venn Diagram of Yarn Lovers and Sausage Lovers doesn’t have a big enough overlap space, so I wasn’t able to get yarnies to try or to buy the sausage. At the same time, I am worried that the huge yarn display was actually discouraging the sausage-seeking folks from coming over. Or maybe they didn’t see the signs. Bigger signs are a must for next time!
Speaking of sausage: You would think that sampling out sausage would be easy! Cook a link, cut it up, feed people. But it isn’t. Law requires that hot food be served hot, but I had long pauses between visitors where cut-up samples would have cooled. So I pre-cooked and pre-chopped my sample sausage for reheating on a little butane stove. Regrettably, the stove caused samples to crisp up and dry out, and one woman even complained (very politely and informatively) that I wasn’t doing the sausage justice with the dry samples. I wish I knew of a way to better offer samples of our juicy sausage- I don’t expect people to stay to have a sample whipped up for them personally.
Continuing my sausage thought-process: In an ideal world, I would be able to sell them as a cooked snack sandwich, but being a food vendor is really different from being an agricultural product vendor and we would need to invest time and money in regulatory compliance. I would also need another person at the farmer’s market to handle that. I should look for a vendor who might like to sell my sausage on commission.
I noticed that of the two varieties of yarn that I now have for sale, everyone touched both kinds but all of the buyers bought my newer yarn because of the soft, fluffy texture. I will add the new yarn to the store soon.
I am proud to say that I remembered almost everything I would need for a day at the market- markers, tape, cashbox, etc. I remembered everything except a plate to put the tongs on and my coffee. Realizing I had forgotten my coffee was disappointing, to say the least.