Hooked on lamb

Forest Lake, Minn. — “A bad joke that got way out of control” is how Todd Marek describes his foray into sheep farming.

Four years ago, on a tongue-in-cheek suggestion from his brother-in-law, Marek purchased two pet sheep to trim his seven-acre yard. One ewe led to another, and now Marek has 40 ewes that produce more than 80 marketable lambs annually.

Last November, his erstwhile hobby led to the creation of Country Meadow Farms Cooperative. Its five producer-members sell fresh lamb year-round to Twin Cities food cooperatives such as the Wedge, Linden Hills and Mississippi Market, and they’re catching the attention of larger food chains.

Everything’s sheep-shape

When Marek, a pre-fabricated farm building salesman, purchased land near Forest Lake to build a home, a few old farm sheds came with the deal, but not enough to set up a lambing operation. So he turned a silage pit into a barn by adding a domed canopy and furnishing it with salvaged equipment — fencing, gates, weight scales, feeding troughs, cabinets — even old doors turned into walls and partitions.

Though crude, his operation is well organized, with a large area for ewes, small pens for birthing and early feeding, and a large pen for ewes with growing lambs. When he steps in the pen, the ewes crowd near him for a kind word and ear scratching. He greets each by name — Serena, Missy, Sabrena. With sad resignation, he pets old Gertrude, one of his original ewes, who is anemic from post-natal hemorrhaging. “I’m afraid she’s just hanging on long enough to nurse her lamb,” he says.

Most of Marek’s ewes have twins but three this season had triplets. He bottle-feeds a half-dozen — those whose dams have died or are too old to nurse. Pregnant ewes and newborn lambs require close attention, Marek says. Because his ewes give birth during winter, he keeps a baby monitor in the barn and plans to install a video monitor so he can keep an eye on them from his home office, a short walk away.

Hobby farm in a hurry

A year after he bought his first two sheep, Marek’s six-year-old daughter Paige showed their purebred Montadale sheep at the Iowa State Fair. She was nervous and “even a little teary,” he says. “But of a class of 30, we ended up ninth and were as happy as could be.” Then she won a reserve champion at the Minnesota State Fair and kept on winning, from the Red River Valley Fair to the Washington County Fair.

Hooked on sheep farming, Marek “bought a couple more, than a couple more, then a bunch more.” Within two years he was selling lambs direct to consumers at $1.25 per pound live weight. He arranged cutting and packaging for his customers at a small meat plant in Amery, Wisc., for a final cost to the consumer of about $3.33 per pound.

As production increased, Marek sold lambs to the stockyards, which he quickly realized wouldn’t pay the bills. “It took me only a year to figure out that I couldn’t make it on 20 to 30 dollars of profit per animal,” Marek says. “If what you’re doing isn’t making money, you have to revamp. … It takes time, but I can sell fewer animals and make money.”

“I think people get stuck in a paradigm and don’t look at the big picture. They’re just happy to take their lambs to South St. Paul because that’s what they’ve always done. … It’s a shame because a lot of these little guys aren’t filling a niche and there are niches to be filled.”

A woman from Cambridge, Minn. inspired him with her pork mobile. “I see her frequently on weekends. She’s in the parking lot selling pork right out of the back of her truck. She’s getting a good price and customers are getting a quality product.”

Last fall, Marek’s direct sales to Twin Cities’ grocers became so successful that “I oversold our supply. … I needed to get a lot of lamb quick.”

Plan ready, market set … go

Rather than buy lambs to fill his order, Marek jump-started a cooperative with the help of a Minnesota Department of Agriculture development program. He approached a veterinarian/sheep producer in Dresser, Wisc., producers from Buffalo and South Haven, Minn. and a retired University of Minnesota geneticist living in New Brighton, Minn. who boards sheep on Marek’s farm. Within a month, “we drew up a business plan and were ready to go.”

Although he says he’s the greenest member on lamb knowledge, Marek’s 15 years of sales experience landed him the chief marketer role. “None of the other farmers have the time or know-how to market the product, so it works out real well,” he says.

AURI provided funding for professionally-designed labels, packaging and marketing materials that reinforce the lamb’s natural, wholesome image. Using in-store demonstrations and point-of-purchase displays, Country Meadow appeals to customers who want locally raised meat without hormones, growth steroids or antibiotics.

The co-op’s primary cuts are leg roasts, shoulder roasts, steaks, loin chops and racks. “We really push the easy summer-time grilling items,” Marek says. “What (stores) don’t sell fresh, they grind and freeze as patties or lamb sausage. All stores want more grind than I can give them. The Wedge buys 60 pounds per week.”

Lamb cycle evens supply

One benefit of group marketing is that it allows producers to stagger breeding times. Marek lambs winter through spring, for example. Another co-op member breeds half her ewes to lamb in the spring and half in the fall, and a third member lambs year-round.

Gestation takes about five months, and lambs reach market weight in about six months; any older than 12 months must be sold as mutton rather than lamb.

“We’re getting breeds in here that are known for out-of-season breeding — Dorset, Finn and Polypae,” Marek says. He prefers white-faced Montadales, which “lamb easily and their mothering is super. Black-face sheep have bigger carcasses, but lambing is more difficult.”

Controlling the speed lambs grow to market weight (100 to 125 pounds) is another way to even out supply. The more grain lambs eat, the faster they gain weight, while pasturing and forage will slow down the gain. “We don’t want 50 to come to weight at the same time.” To maintain natural production methods, the producers use information and scheduling, not drugs. “In feedlot situations, they’re often pumped full of steroids to get bigger faster,” Marek says.

The co-op buys lambs from its members, paying five cents per pound more than market price. “Plus we pick up at the farm and pay immediately,” Marek says.

“The co-op is willing to break with tradition to adjust to market demands,” says Michael Sparby, AURI project director in Morris. “They’ve identified a niche market. … Market studies show that, while most lamb is imported, there is a market for fresh, locally produced lamb.”

Up against New Zealand

Most lamb sold in the United States comes from New Zealand and Australia, but Marek says once consumers get a taste of American lamb, they will prefer it. “New Zealand lamb has a distinct flavor because there’s a certain type of clover that comprises most of the grazing ground; it gives an ‘off’ flavor to the meat. Our lamb has a completely different taste — a lot of chefs prefer it.”

“The downside is we’re not consistent and (imports) have that up on us. In New Zealand, they’ve developed breeds over hundreds of years and sell a uniform variety,” Marek says. “When they ship over 10,000 pounds of loin chops, every chop is almost identical. Chefs like that.”

The United States has many breed variations and high feed costs, while South Pacific producers can graze 12 months out of the year. “They can raise their lamb, ship it over and sell it cheaper than I can produce it,” Marek says.

Still, he’s banking on the advantages of fresh over frozen. He points to a major natural food chain interested in Country Meadow lamb, but “they buy 400 pounds per week and we can’t supply that right now,” Marek says. “We haven’t come full circle with our breeding programs — we’re figuring out what we’re getting back per retail cut from one lamb versus another. We’re laying low for a month or two until we get everything worked out.”

“We have to keep looking ahead and broadening our product line. We’re starting to sell to some restaurants now — like Zanders Cafe in St. Paul. And we’re always trying to come up with more products.”

“They have the members and expertise to make things go,” Sparby says. “And Todd (Marek) has enough drive to carry it out.”

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