Country Meadow Farms, a marketing group formed in 2000 with help from AURI, supplies lamb year-round to Metro-area natural foods stores, including Mississippi Markets in St. Paul, Fresh and Natural Foods in Arden Hills, and Linden Hills Co-op in Minneapolis.

The five co-op members raise Montadale sheep, producing about 1,000 lambs a year. Country Meadow Farms directly markets roughly a third of the group’s lamb crop, says member Chuck Christians of New Brighton, a retired University of Minnesota scientist who organizes processing and distribution. The co-op is also collecting carcass data on the Montadale breed as part of the sheep industry’s effort to improve quality.

Hard to compete

Country Meadow has struggled to be price-competitive with its fresh and frozen lamb cuts, Christians says. Low volume, high processing costs and cheap imported lamb have weighed on the co-op’s profitability. “That’s why we’re looking at more processed products.”

The co-op’s best seller has been lamb summer sausage, Christians says. Initially, Country Meadow Farms sausage contained sodium nitrite, a widely used meat preservative. But growing demand for naturally processed foods led natural foods stores to ask the co-op for no-nitrite-added sausage.

Scientists at AURI’s meat lab in Marshall helped the group develop and test no-nitrite-added summer sausage in two flavors, regular and garlic, as well as lamb franks, brats and sandwich meat. In taste tests, the specialty meats got a good response, Christians says. “Consumers liked the flavor, the eye appeal, the color.”

Country Meadow Farms’ reformulated summer sausages will be introduced later this summer. “As far as we know, there is no other no-nitrite-added lamb sausage on the market,” Christians says. “We’re hoping this will give us a niche.”