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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.
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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.

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We Went to the Festival

And I sold lots of yarn, batts and pelts.

Saturday started off with lots of visitors inspecting the goods, but few purchases.  I was anxious that no one would be in a buying mood!  But suddenly around 12:30, an unheard “buy-things-now” alarm went off and suddenly 4 pelts, a pile of yarn and half of my batts went to new homes.  Meanwhile, Matt was manning the sheep pen and chatting about Bluefaced Leicesters and Cormo with all comers.  The sheep who came this week weren’t as friendly as the 2014 crew, so they hung back while children reached for them.  Eleanor, Phoebe and Chickadee are happy to be home, but maybe a little braver than they were before their eye-opening experience.

Patterns were a huge seller. The Climbing Trellis Mittens and the Vermont Sheepscape Sweater were standout performers.  Unlike our festival experience in 2014, though, the pattern purchases didn’t seem to inspire yarn purchases – the yarn was bought generally after the customer made a few observations like”Wow, soft” and “Amazing quality.”  The yarn, made at Hampton’s Fiber Mill, was as good as anything at the show.  I did get to brag a bit about my mother’s pattern-design and knitting skill, as the samples she had knitted me were greatly admired.

With respect to our booth display, it was hard not to feel inadequate compared to other vendors.  My cobbled-together booth with materials lent to me by Mom and a coworker reflected our relative inexperience.  The fact that we arrived at 8:30 on Saturday morning and were still frantically searching for a screwdriver ten minutes before showtime probably reinforced that.  However, once people started milling more, the slightly disjointed character of my display seemed to matter less, and the presence of adorable sheep mattered more.

Saturday was devoted to sales, but Sunday offered lulls in the booth traffic that allowed Phoebe to shop and permitted me to cruise other booths and vendors to make and renew some contacts.   Shepherds don’t meet up often, so this was one of my few opportunities to meet friends from farms a few hours away.

Some familiar faces included Wing and a Prayer Farm, whose proprietor Tammy I admire tremendously for her fiber skills and her ability to share and expand fibercraft to new audiences with her activities and workshops.  We’ve got a pending phone date.  I caught up with Peggy at Savage Hart Farm, too.  She had sausage for sale, so we compared notes about having sausage made.  She’s been my go-to recommendation when people have contacted me about breeding stock, since I didn’t have any spare lambs this year or last year.  I also had a brief chat with Cindy at Ewe and I Farm.  We met years ago doing Holistic Management.  Perhaps most critically, I had a meeting with Hilary Chapin of Smiling Sheep Farm, which allowed us to conspire more about bringing more Bluefaced Leicesters to the Northeast from the Mid-West and West.  Hilary has an outlook on husbandry and  an understanding of sheepraising that I largely share – sheep must express both form and function, and we can’t excuse low quality, even in a rare or unusual breed.

The main takeaway may be that I finally feel a little like Sheep and Pickle Farm is on the right track.  People remember the farm, people have read articles in Vermont’s Local Banquet that I’ve written, and Matt is engaged in shepherding with me.  He is developing his own areas of expertise in haying and tractorwork while he also learns more about the science of sheep.  Phoebe has learned a great deal in her year-or-so of sheep education, and her help was invaluable as we hastily packed up at the end of Sunday, completely exhausted from smiling and chatting so much.

 

 

 

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Preparing for the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival

Somehow, getting ready for my second Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival seems like it will be more challenging than the first.

First, I am not currently certain whether I will have yarn or not for the show.  With three weeks to go, it would be helpful to know if yarn is happening or not.   The issue is that the owner of my mill recently had surgery, and I know from experience that recovery is pretty variable, so we don’t know if he will have time to process my order or not.   I am hoping to bring the fleece to sell raw if spinning can’t take place, but it’s all up in the air at present.  This is not a complaint or an indictment of anyone- it’s just the way that cookies crumble when you’re dealing with small businesses owned by real people, and I know that.

Second, I am hoping to have sausages back soon from the lambs I dropped off a few weeks ago.  The slaughterhouse told me that they had run low on casings, so I await them awaiting their casing order.  I will not have sausage for sale at the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival.  The logistics of bringing it and the insurance and licensing implications thereof are too much to deal with.  If you want some sausage (and you do, based on the deliciousness of the last batch!), contact me now.

Third, with uncertainty about yarn hanging over my head, I’ve been madly processing all of the non-yarn fleece into batts for sale.  I now have a cellar full of beautiful natural-colored and hand-dyed batts.  I will confess that I am scared because I’m a newbie dyer and I have a persistent nightmare about getting mountains of phone calls about dye washing out of finished knits!   Here’s hoping I didn’t mess it all up too badly.  Does anyone know of a way to test a dye-job that doesn’t chew up too much of the dyed material?

And Fourth, I learned recently through helpful Facebook crowdsourcing that brochures are hopelessly old-fashioned and that post-cards are the way to go.  It’s likely that friends of the farm saved me a fair $100 on printing costs while also updating my tastes.  Thanks, friends!  I designed what I hope will be a very attractive card with some charming sheep photos on it and a list of available products.

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A combination of Eleanor and Little Moose’s fleece

 

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End of the Summer

 

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The ram lambs left on the 12th of the month, so the flock is down to the girls all dining in the Donkey Pasture, and the boys, banished to mow the lawn and subsist on shrubs in the periphery of the fields.   The guys were quite large when they left, and I’m looking forward to a goodly amount of Chorizo sausage in the near future.  You should be, too – let me know if you’d like some!

We sheared Fred and the ewe lambs on the 21st.  I am gradually getting better at shearing, though I’ve only done it assisted by some sheep-holder-downers.  With Phoebe, Matt and my parents involved, we were still not actually overstaffed for the project.  The first two sheep looked a little gnawed-on, but the second two looked great.  Now that I feel comfortable with the blade, I’ll work my way up to doing it mostly on my own!

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We had a good scare from little Fred.  We FAMACHA’ed all of the lambs, and his lower eyelids were WHITE.  I’m not sure if the recent rains gave him an extra large dose of worms or if he has lower innate resistance, but some giant doses of dewormer and some NutriDrench seem to have straightened him out.  I was pretty worried for the first day or so until he really brightened up.

While I’m going to start flushing the ewes (feeding increased nutrition to help stimulate large lambing rates), I am also starting my preparation for the Vermont Sheep and Wool Festival.  Because Michael is having knee surgery, it seems uncertain as to whether I’ll have raw wool or yarn to sell from the Cormos, but I’ll have some gorgeous, cuddle-able BFL on offer at the show in any case (unless it vanishes first- I sold a pound of it today!)

Even though having only three ram lambs for meat sales means that this year will be a wash financially, I’m still really thrilled to be poised for good lambing and a better showing next year.