Looking Under the Hood

This post is going to be about meat and finances.  If you are mostly here for the cute lambs, that’s totally cool, of course, but this post doesn’t have any of those.  We will be back to our regularly-scheduled programming next post.

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We are excited to announce that we will be having lamb sausage made in mid June.  We will have Garlic Parmesan sausage available for sale at our farm and hopefully at a few select locations in the state.  Delivery is possible, for those that want it.  That said, my thoughts about how to sell this sausage and my lamb crop generally are a bit mixed at the moment.

Here’s the skinny: The most I can make selling a 45lb lamb is selling one to you, whole or half, at my current price, $10/lb.  Even thought I pay the butcher and often do the transport, that is my longest dollar.  While sausage is a food that anyone can cook and enjoy, your sausage yield from that same 45lb lamb might only be 25 lbs of ground meat, yielding 30lbs of sausage once some pork fat is added.  The price per pound has to go up, and that’s hard to do with a meat format that most people view as cheap.

I have several years’ experience marketing Vermont specialty foods.   Both products I sold were high-priced, specialty offerings so I am pretty familiar with the Vermont market for pantry staples with long shelf-lives.   Meat is different- it is perishable, and unless you’ve really spent your time branding, a lot of customers view it as interchangeable.  Both products I sold in the past were for special occasions and were giftable.  Meat is a staple for most people and would be a rather non-standard gift.  What then, in their minds, is the difference between one farm and another when the product in the clear plastic wrap looks the same?

The Vermont food market offers an unending array of specialty foods but has probably achieved saturation in some areas.  Non-diet-specialized baked goods and sugary foods are saturated sectors.  I’ve been told that specialty hot sauces and mustards  the truth is that many people who buy lamb have a friend or neighbor who can sell it at hobby-scale prices.  It is fine with me that farms do that, but I know that it reduces my ability to sell meat in Vermont at prices that will sustain our farm without us also working full-time off-farm jobs.

Some of the common mistakes and a few brilliant moves are known to me.  I am not as familiar with perishable meat sales and distribution, though, and I worry about making similar mistakes to the ones I have seen.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of things I shouldn’t do when I try to sell my lamb:

  • Under-price my product such that I wind up in a position where I lose customers when I correct the price later.   I knew a company that delivered their product for free and didn’t factor their debt into the price.  When they went back and recalculated, many purchasers reduced or eliminated the product from the shelves.  They simply could not bear the price increase and replaced the product with another that generated more turnover and revenue.  Pricing correctly requires a lot of calculations, sometimes with numbers that I don’t yet know.  It’s intimidating!
  • Put my eggs all in one basket.  Another company I heard about was lining up a large contract with a national retailer.  They halted marketing efforts because the retailer was going to purchase 75% of their product output and invested in specialized boxes that the vendor required.  The retailer only took about 1/3rd of what they projected, and the company had to scramble to move the rest of their product in a very short timeframe.   With a relatively small output of lamb this year but hopes for much more next year, I need to focus on sending lamb to growth areas and establishing relationships, but not running out of product!  Yikes!
  • Neglect my marketing.  One of the best efforts one of my prior companies made was to put lots of effort into reaching out to magazines and media.  They created their own niche by having a stronger media presence than some of the first-to-market competitors with smaller budgets.  It was really impressive to see the effects of that effort in sales effectiveness.  I haven’t focused enough on this because I don’t plan to market in my immediate vicinity.  Frankly, my immediate area is generally very low-income and might possibly find my prices and my Animal Welfare Approved certifications offensive or off-putting.
  • Fail to utilize my social media presence.   This farm has almost 500 Facebook followers and has over 1000 Instagram followers.  Woohoo!  It makes me incredibly happy to know that so many people care about the goings-on on this little farm.  But I think that I have more folks who love pictures of sheep than I have people looking to buy our yarn or our meat.  And the meat issue is especially touchy – I don’t post about meat because I don’t want to offend folks who would buy the yarn but not the meat, but the reality is that meat income makes this farm viable.  I started raising animals for meat because I wanted to eat meat raised to the very highest standards after 10 years of being vegetarian.  So I am not ashamed of it, but I am also unable to mobilize my social media effectively because I have a product that enough people just don’t want to see or think about.
  • Allocate my time and product incorrectly.  I want to build a presence mainly in the Boston and/or New York City markets, because I see that the Vermont market is pretty well saturated for lamb, generally.   But I also need to make the “longest dollar” for my efforts, which means capturing a maximum amount of retail sales.  The irony is that if I sell at a local farmer’s market, I will capture more retail dollars, but I will cut into my future salespower by not growing my market where growth can be achieved.   Does that make sense?  Let’s say I produce 30% more than I can sell at Vermont food co-ops and a farmer’s market, that 30% of my output might only last 3 or 4 weeks at a market in Boston.  Whereas if I sold my whole crop to one or two markets in Boston, that might ultimately result in no leftover lamb.  But then we are back to No-No #2, putting all of our eggs in one basket!
  • Making your sales work for you as money and media: I have a distributor in Boston that is interested in my meat, but I can’t afford to sell at the price they are currently offering.  When the sheep have reached a full population, perhaps I will be able to use them as an outlet.  The meat would also have their label, not mine, which doesn’t contribute to promoting my products effectively.

 

All of these thoughts seem to lead me in endless circles.  How to I launch in a place that I no longer know, with a level of sophistication that I no longer cultivate in myself, but do it in a way that I can continue to grow this business and sell more lamb in years to come?    Fundamentally, this is an issue of scaling up in a deliberate and planned way, which I understand is much easier to do with factories and widgets versus living beings.  Is it possible to make my longest-dollar by doing more retail in the short-term, while simultaneously selling to a distant market on a wholesale basis?

I would be interested in anyone’s thoughts and comments!

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Lamb sausages are really delicious.

Pork and Soybeans

Talk of trade wars in the news gave me some thoughts.  I’m not going to wade into politics, but I will wade into farming.

Given their intelligent, social nature, I feel comfortable saying that pigs are some of the most abused animals in factory farming.  According to a recent article in Civil Eats, 75% of breeding sows in the US live in tiny crates without room to move or socialize

 

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So my first thought about the trade war and possible damage to the conventional pork industry was “Good!  Maybe this will decrease the amount of factory farm pork and improve the prospects of pastured pork, where pigs can engage in natural behaviors.  As I read more, though, I realized there was a problem.  China isn’t buying whole pigs at low-cost.  Most of the US pork headed for China consists of offal and parts that most Americans don’t seek out like tails and ears.   I considered that even though many cultural groups within the US may seek these parts, would they go to waste without China buying them, downgraded into pet food.  That’s part of why pastured pork goes hand in hand with eating nose to tail.  Could we convince more Americans to eat ears, tails and offal?   I am still enamored of the liver pate that I made last year.

Soybeans offer a similar conundrum.  On the Chinese market, they are human food and feed for animals.  In the US, most soybeans are fed to animals in confinement.  If soybean prices crash, will we increase the amount of meat grown in confinement, fed soy?   The answer, according to the recent Planet Money podcast I listened to, is that Europe will buy it to feed their farm animals.  Thus, we move carbon and other nutrients around the world using more carbon.

It isn’t lost on anyone that China can read an electoral map and chose to target economic sanctions in areas that voted for the current administration.  How will people affected by price changes view this change and how will they respond?

 

 

 

 

Animal Welfare Approved

Cloverworks Farm is pleased to announce that our farm is now Animal Welfare Approved!  We are excited to join the program and proud that we’ve been able to meet their requirements.  We were granted a derogation to continue long-docking tails for breeding ewes.  It feels good to have recognition of our humane efforts in not castrating or docking rams or non-breeding stock ewes.

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Some local farmers are a little nervous about “Claim Proliferation” on labels.  Claims like “Gluten Free” on fresh celery and “Farm Grown” on Lay’s Potato Chips (as opposed to wild caught?) are rankling some consumers.  But the more I talk to people outside of our farming community, the more I realize how much we do need to communicate these facts that feel obvious to us.  When I am not talking to the consumer directly, labels like Animal Welfare Approved convey the information I need to share.  I want buyers in New York or Boston to know that my lambs were raised to the highest standards of welfare.

Learn more about AWA’s standards for sheep welfare.

 

The “Shovel” Problem

Are Bluefaced Leicester (BFL) sheep hardy enough?

I’ve been talking to Lisa, a long time Bluefaced Leicester breeder.  We both agree that we are tired of some of the misconceptions about Bluefaced Leicesters – that they are just for small-scale hobbyists, that they don’t have a sustainable genetic presence in the US, and that “Every ram is sold with a shovel.”

It’s the last point that I was considering tonight.  We are having a blizzard at the moment.  A foot of snow has fallen, and it looks like more is yet to come.   Temperatures have fallen to -25F some nights in the last month, and we know we aren’t done with cold temperatures.

We knew that the Border Leicesters would be fine.  They have thick wool that protects them from virtually everything and are a popular breed in this climate.  But come to find out, the BFLs are no less game for the weather.  While I was out doing chores, they were out in the snow.  Inside, others had snowfall piled on their backs, unmelted by body heat; a sure sign that they are fully weather-insulated.  They seem happy and healthy.

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This ewe is black, in case you can’t tell.

I have noted in the past that it is a challenge to keep some of my Bluefaced Leicester ewes in top body condition.  I’ve recently learned that there are some bloodlines in the breed that carry this trait, but that it is possible to avoid those lines.  Some of my sheep who are leanest carry those lines.  Now I know!  Fortunately, Fred the ram is a the easiest of easy keeper, so we can select our way away from this tendency.  We also have more than 50% of the flock without those lines.  One might think that the fleece fancy has caused this issue, but I believe that it was an honest mistake.  It is possible that the ram was just well-fed and appeared more adequate than his genotype turned out.  The solution to this problem is improved, standardized recordkeeping, not the blame game.

Admittedly, some Bluefaced Leicesters are kept mainly for fleece.   Their fleeces are light, though, and while some sheep are kept as pets, the cost and challenge of finding rams means that most flocks that are larger breeding operations have a meat operation, too.  The difference is that when you are catering to fiber lovers, it can be awkward to co-market your meat.  So many farms that do both separate the marketing in a way that farmers with sheep raised purely for meat don’t need to.  The goal is the same, but the conversation looks different.

In Britain, they are fond of the saying that “every Bluehead Ram is sold with a shovel” so you can bury him when he dies.  British sheep management is much different than ours, and it’s not really a surprise that more sheep die when there is no shelter, and when a ram is put in with 60 or 80 ewes to breed.  Are Blues reasonably hardy?  Yes, absolutely.  Are they as hardy as Scottish Blackfaces?  Perhaps not quite, but they have more lambs, more meat and nicer wool than a Blackface.  A little shelter and basic care isn’t too much to pay for that.  So I don’t take British grousing about BFLs too seriously.

I am raising Bluefaced Leicesters because I think they have one of the strongest suits of genetic and economic potential among breeds that have desirable wool.  I still feel this way, and I hope I can help others see it too.

 

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A Day about Pigs

We are having a little piggy-roast next weekend in honor of Matt…getting older, let’s say.  We brought a live pig home last week.   She was cute as could be – a 60lb gilt (young sow) with endearing eyes.  She loved the apples and sheep grain I offered and would batt her long eyelashes at me.  When Mary Lake came to dispatch the piggy with adorable son Hugo in tow, I felt more hesitation than usual.  We don’t have facilities to keep a pig, however, and the thought of crackling pork was enough to go on with the matter.  Mary said that our little pig had some parasite damage to her liver and kidneys and wouldn’t have been a good candidate to bear many litters of piglets.  That’s some consolation, and we will revisit the idea of raising pigs in our farm plans for next year.

Our first act after slaughter was to figure out a way to remove the hair from the pig.  The skin of a slaughtered pig is the tastiest part, but no one wants scruffy hairs all over their plate.  Youtube to the rescue – we found a technique where you put a towel on the carcass, pour boiling water on the towel, and then scrape the hair off.  Easier said than done!  We were having high winds, and the towels cooled rapidly.  The hair was as attached as ever and the knife shaved the pig more than it epilated it.  We tried a few more water-pours, but didn’t make much progress.  Time to throw in the towel, as it were.

So we moved on to Plan B.  When Plan B involves a blowtorch, you know it’s a good plan.  I dutifully torched all of the remaining hair off that hide.  The smell was terrible, but the job was oddly satisfying.  Matt and I had to neaten up quickly as we had a date at a restaurant that we love that is closing this fall.  Wouldn’t want to go to a real-tablecloth restaurant reeking of blood and scorched hair.

The pig is hanging in our cellar fridge, but we have had a little advanced sample of the liver today.  I’m keen to do a better job of using our animals nose-to-tail to honor their sacrifice.  I found a promising recipe for liver pate that came out very well.  The pate is quite rich and satisfying, featuring the mineral-y liver flavor very favorably.   The kidneys were cooked up for the chickens this time, but I’d be keen to hear any good recipes for those if you have them!

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A Few Weeks In

We’re now a few weeks into living and working our new farm.  Huge changes continue.

  • We separated the ewes and the lambs again.  This time, it’s so that we can breed the adults for January and February lambs and breed the ewe lambs to have babies in May, when their bodies will be more mature and prepared.  This does mean that we will have some Border Leicester/Bluefaced Leicester crosses
  • The house desperately needed a new roof, so we found a roofer and got the job done.  The lambs baa’ed at the poor roofers all day long.
  • We got chickens!  We are very excited to have eight lovely Rhode Island Reds and a very handsome rooster of a breed that I can’t recall the name of.  He looks similar to a Welsummer and we appreciate his gentle (so far!) personality.
  • The land here has been transformed by our mowing efforts.  We bought a house with overgrown fields and small shrubs starting to come on.  Now, the fields are moving away from goldenrod and ragweed and back to clover, orchardgrass and forbs.
  • Matt made a first cutting of hay – 30 bales isn’t a bad haul!  The hay is crummy, but hopefully we can add some fertilizer
  • I am in love with the beautiful Border Leicesters who came to the farm.  They’re so bright and healthy.  Mary sheared three of them and we now have some lovely wool to play with.  I am mixed on offering the white for sale as fleece or making some batts.
  • We shipped four ram lambs to meet our fresh lamb orders.  Two Cormo/BFL crosses dressed out at and above my goal weight- hooray!  The other two were a little scrawny, but I know that they didn’t get everything they could have with the move and other factors in play.
  • Every day, I step outside and breathe in fresh air.  I look at the sheep, and I realize that I don’t have to make any compromises in my efforts to meet their needs.  If I need to change something or move them, I can do what I need to without hesitation. We can finally invest in the sheep as deeply as we need to without thinking about mobility.  Our land is sunny and breezy.  Our home is quiet and peaceful.  I have abundant gratitude for everything we’ve been given.   I hope that Pete would be pleased with what we’ve done.

 

How to Evaluate a Potential Farm

I didn’t think it would be easy to find a farm.  But I didn’t think it would be this hard, either!

Matt and I have been looking at farms for over a year at this point.  We know that we need about 50 open acres, and we just want a modest house.  Our budget is lean, but we are willing to put up with some issues or inconveniences.  We want land without a barn, ideally, so we can avoid retrofitting old dairy properties.  Old wooden dairy barns are not easily adapted to a sheep operations.  The concrete floors with gutters, the low ceilings and any stanchions in place are more of a liability than an asset for a sheep operation.  Ever since I worked at Fat Toad Farm, I’ve been really in love with the open, bright feeling of a greenhouse-type building with plenty of clear space inside and have found that animals appreciate the dirt floors, sunlight, and copious fresh air.

Here are a few types of properties that we’ve found that are just a little off-the-mark for us.

– Nice small houses on too few acres.

– Nice small houses in the woods, on cliffs, or down by the river.

– Large, cumbersome, decrepit farmhouses on prime land.

– Trailers on tiny patches of prime land carved from a large, old dairy property.

– Plenty of gorgeous land but with a huge new mansion on it.

– Too much land with no house at all.

Even a look at Vermont Land Link, set up to help farmers find land, has a lot of huge properties and a lot of teeny properties, but no mid-scale ones.  8 acres is not very helpful to us, but 800 is more than we can sustain and manage.

We think, however, that we have found the right place, so stay tuned for updates!

The Problem with Sheep and Pickle

Matt and I are making steady progress in buying a property and establishing an enterprise on it.  We have 25 more sheep reserved, we have found a property we are hoping to buy, and we have much of what we need to begin making hay as soon as we see some promising-looking land.

 

There are a few less-tangible things that also need to change, though.  We are going to continue our wool enterprises, of course.  That a huge part of the joy of raising sheep!  But in order to sell 150 to 175 lambs each year, we are going to need to focus on selling meat a bit more intensively.   We need to sell it to people who don’t know us personally and don’t know what we do.

 

Having a farm called Sheep and Pickle Farm has been really fun, and most people seem to think it’s really cute.  But the invariable “Where’s the Pickles” questions plus the general weirdness of the name just won’t work in the broader marketplace.  I’ve been selling specialty food for about 7 years now, and I’m here to tell you that a good name and logo makes a real difference, especially in markets outside of Vermont.  Vermonters don’t care about slick marketing, but your label has to really yell to get attention in the crowded gourmet grocery stores of Boston.  Sheep and Pickle just won’t do that.  It also won’t tell people that our lamb is grass fed, that the breeds we raise are special, and about how much we care about the health and wellbeing of our flock.

 

So a new scale and a new venture demands that we rechristen this farm.  We are working on names that are unique, purposeful, wholesome, values-driven and just a bit cheeky.  Vermont has plenty of farm names that include trees (Maple Hill, Maple Grove, Maple Lane), adjective or verb – animal (Fat Toad, Fat Rooster, Does’ Leap, Turkey Hill).  Sheep puns are also pretty thoroughly claimed (Ewe and I, Ewe-who, Ewe Rock) and I want to make sure that our name would make sense if we were to branch out into raising turkeys or pigs.

 

We have a thought brewing right now, but I’m also open to other people’s ideas.  What catches your eye at the meat counter?  What colors stand out to you?  What annoys you about marketing?

 

I am eager to hear!

This Week in Review

Content Warning- Real Farming.

If you’ve read my Facebook Page recently, you’d know that we had a really fabulous and successful lamb open house.  My goal for the open house was to share the joys of lambing with the public, and I would say “Objective Achieved.”

I’m committed to running this farm open-source, so that others can learn from my experiences.  In that spirit, I will share the following:

The Fourth Doctor died on Friday night.  We checked him at 6 and he looked completely fine.  At 10, as we settled down to sleep, we heard strange sounds from the ram shed.  I threw some pants and a shirt on to go and look, and found him in agony, straining.  We called the vet, 45 minutes away, and I sat with The Doctor, trying to comfort him in his suffering.  Matt went for supplies and Mom came over from the B&B to lend emotional support.  When the vet arrived, she diagnosed a Urinary Calculi blockage.  We catheterized him to see if we could break up the blockage and allow him to pee, after cutting of his urethral process (really adding insult to injury for his situation).   The catheter went all the way in, but nothing came out but a little blood.  One option was to access his bladder via a hollow needle from the side and attempt treatment that way.  When Cat, the vet, said that the odds of success were less than 50%, we decided that it would be unkind to continue treatment.  The Fourth Doctor was suffering badly and continued to moan in pain under sedation.  We said a hasty goodbye to him, with final hugs and kisses.  Fred, the other ram, was distraught at his companion’s pain and confused to find himself living with the girls again.

So we were feeling pretty terrible, recognizing that having the ram’s water freeze over regularly probably contributed to this loss.  Then we got worse news.

Valentine, the last of my first set of lambs born on my farm, tested positive for Caseous Lymphadenitis.  Gut Punch.  We had noticed a weird cyst on her cheek and her wool break earlier and decided to look after it.  Well, the news came on Wednesday afternoon, and we’ve been in emergency mode since then.

  • I cancelled all of my breeding stock reservations this year.  No one would thank me for potentially introducing a serious disease into their herd, so all of my handsome little rams will stay here this year.
  • Tragically, there is no good treatment for CL.  I made the crushing decision to slaughter Valentine and Peggy, too.  Valentine for testing positive, and Peggy for potentially showing symptoms.  This leaves three lambs as orphans.  Peggy’s lambs were already being fed by us, but poor Pencilvester is lost and distraught.  Still, the risk of transmission if Valentine’s cyst were to burst was too much to allow.
  • The vet came today to test the remaining sheep for CL.  At $50/sheep, this will be a painful and expensive exercise, but well worth it.  Our next steps will depend entirely on the results of the test.  A few positive ewes can be culled with minimal negative effect, but if the illness is widespread, we will have to do a long-term control plan involving having a “clean” flock and a “positive” flock that will have to be biosecure and separate  Here’s hoping for option 1.
  • I have also contacted everyone to whom I’ve sold a sheep in recent years.  Having to tell someone that their flock may have been exposed is worse even than receiving that news about your own flock.  I would rather have my own flock potentially sick than know that I’ve exposed others, but in my case both are true.  The feeling is terrible.
  • All ram lambs will be future meat this year.  I will keep the crossbred ewe lambs just to keep stock numbers growing and to see how they perform overall.

This experience reminds me that my commitment is to the flock, not to the individual.  The sacrifice of Valentine and Peggy for the good of the flock overall feels terrible, but justified. I may be called to make more such decisions.  Fortunately, CL is not highly transmissable from ewe to lamb, so the lambs may be okay.  They are too young to test accurately, anyhow.

Recovering from this will be a multi-year process.  Nevertheless, I will persist.  I have tremendous gratitude for all of the responses I’ve had from friends and other shepherds helping reassure me that I’m not a terrible shepherd.  It’s hard not to feel like a terrible shepherd after a week like this one.

Chorizo!

The much-anticipated Chorizo is here!

It’s not like the Merguez we made in June.  Without the benefit of added pork fat that we put in the Merguez, this sausage is, frankly, more like ground meat in a tube than sausage.  Cooking it is a delicate affair, since fat creates juiciness and crispness.  On the upside, this sausage is leaner and healthier than regular sausage.  Even better?  This sausage has fabulous lamb flavor with the rich garlic, pepper and oregano of traditional pork Chorizo.

Still, it’s tasty and flavorful meat that just begs to be part of soups and stews.  Use it to make rich, creamy soup or Cuban beans and rice.  The off-grill possibilities are endless and perfect for fall and winter.

We don’t fault brisket for not being prime rib, and neither need we fault this sausage for being intended for flavoring soups and stews rather than frying.  That said, I’m charging less than I intended to for this sausage because it is less versatile than other sausages.

Please send me an email or give me a call if you’d like to try some tasty sausage!   I am offering 10% off ten or more packages.  Sheepandpickle at gmail is the email you’ll be looking for.