Hutchinson, Minn. – When her customers kept asking for gyros meat, Hutchinson lamb producer Connie Karstens decided it was time to go Greek. She already knew Minnesotans love the Mediterranean blend of ground lamb, beef and spices served on pita bread. Since 1991, she’s been serving gyros (pronounced YEE-ro if you want to sound Greek) at her Minnesota State Fair food booth, where she sells about 2,000 pounds of the meat mixture in two weeks.

“There’s a demand for this product,” but little available for the home kitchen, she says. “So we said, we might as well try to fill the demand.” Karstens, 42, and her husband, Doug Rathke, 43, own a 250-ewe sheep farm, “Liberty Land & Livestock” in Meeker County. In addition to their popular State Fair booth, they operate an on-farm meat processing plant and a retail store, The Lamb Shoppe, where they sell fresh and frozen lamb cuts. Gyros is the latest addition to their product line. Most commercial gyros mixtures are mainly beef, with just a little bit of lamb, according to Karstens. “We want to make one with more lamb. That will set us apart. We’re also using Minnesota-grown meat. A lot of my customers are asking for gyros meat made locally.”

Karstens worked with the AURI meat lab in Marshall to develop and test gyros recipes and processing methods. AURI’s Charon Wadhawan provided nutrition analysis and labeling for the new gyros meat, which will be available for retail later this year. AURI also helped Karstens find a co-packer.

More from each lamb

This is the second time AURI has worked with Karstens and Rathke. In 1996, AURI supported the building of a USDA-inspected farmstead meat-cutting plant and sponsored advanced lamb-cutting instruction from the British Livestock and Meat Commission.

Karstens and Rathke, in business since 1986, have built a profitable operation by keeping production and processing costs low and directly marketing everything they grow. They graze their Dorsets from April to December and lamb in February, May and October, producing about 500 market lambs a year. They slaughter weekly at nearby Carlson Meats in Grove City, then do their own cutting and packaging.

“We vary our product selection by season, based on our experience of what people want,” Karstens says. To offset processing costs, she sells the whole carcass: fat to artisan soap makers, tongues and kidneys to local ethnic markets, bones and other cuts to pet owners. “You have to sell everything.”

Karstens and Rathke directly market more than 1,000 lambs a year, outstripping their own farm’s production. “It’s really taken off,” she says. They fill out orders with lambs from a dozen area growers who use their genetics and feeding regimen, which assures uniform quality for their product.

Karstens, who handles all the marketing, delivers fresh lamb to two ethnic restaurants in the Twin Cities. The rest she sells frozen at The Lamb Shoppe, located an hour west of Minneapolis on Highway 7.

Farm mystique

Karstens also sells beef, free-range poultry, fresh eggs, butter, cheese, organic flour, woolen goods, herbs and seasonal produce. She promotes the popular mystique of the family farm: “We’re selling a whole atmosphere here, a whole experience.”

Lamb Shoppe customers can pick their own eggs, watch Lilly the llama and Ace the dog herd sheep, check out the donkeys that guard the flock, visit the baby lambs, or even see a sheep shearing (Doug Rathke is an international sheep shearing champion). “We try to appeal to all the senses.”

Karstens, who gets about 30 drop-ins a week without advertising, says consumers are eager to connect personally with the people who grow their food. “That’s the fun of it and the really rewarding part: when people from the city say, ‘That’s my farmer!’ ”

For more information about The Lamb Shoppe, and a virtual tour of the farm, visit www.ourfarmtoyou.com