Lamb from the East

 

Benson, Minn. — A By E. M. Morrison

Prairie Lamb Cooperative is bringing the taste of the East to a Minnesota grocery near you.

The subtle flavors of northern India and Morocco have inspired the co-op to produce three gourmet convenience foods being test-marketed in the Twin Cities. The ethnic dishes, made with Minnesota lamb and chicken, represent six years of market research and development.

Prices in perpetual slide

Prairie Lamb Co-op, a group of 35 central and southern Minnesota growers, formed in 1995 in response to falling meat prices. “We met at what was then a low point in lamb prices,” says Belview farmer John Essame, the co-op’s president and a former instructor in the lamb and wool program at Ridgewater Technical College in Willmar, Minn.

Since then, lamb prices have slipped further, continuing a decline that has cut the sheep industry more than 80 percent since World War II. In 1942, there were 56 million sheep in the United States, according to the Minnesota Agricultural Statistics Service. Today, there are fewer than seven million.

Lamb consumption in the United States has also declined, dropping from two pounds per person in 1970 to one pound in 1990. By comparison, annual turkey consumption over the same period doubled, rising from six pounds per person to 14.

While the poultry, beef and pork industries have all developed convenience products over the last 30 years, the lamb industry has failed to innovate, Essame says. At any supermarket, “there are feet and feet of value-added meat products — stuffed, seasoned, marinated, cooked.” But lamb is still sold as a “chunk of meat.” If available at all, it is likely to be traditional cuts such as leg of lamb or lamb chops.

Blinded by the British

During sheep tours of the United Kingdom in the early ’90s, co-op members saw some creative ways to cut and merchandise lamb and resolved to bring those ideas to Minnesota. They held a lamb-cutting workshop at the University of Minnesota, taught by experts from the British Meat and Livestock Commission, and organized a marketing group to sell the new cuts.

But when they pitched the products to upscale supermarkets, they discovered they’d gone down “a blind alley,” Essame says. Although retailers “were impressed with the products we brought in, the effort we had made, they regretfully told us we had wasted our time.” The co-op’s products could easily be copied by grocery store meat departments, bypassing the lamb cooperative.

Teams to the Twin Cities

In 1998, Prairie Lamb changed direction, seeking to market lamb as an ingredient in processed foods.

Assisted by AURI and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the group surveyed more than 50 Twin Cities restaurants, looking for the most popular lamb dishes. Then they sent teams of four to 20 restaurants for taste tests. Teams completed a questionnaire about each dish, detailing ingredients, preparation, appearance, aroma, flavor, texture and presentation. The information helped Prairie Lamb identify dishes that could be successfully manufactured.

The winners? “Indian and Mediterranean cuisine,” Essame says. Not a surprise, he adds, “because these are the regions where lamb is a predominant meat.”

To develop authentic dishes in these food traditions, the co-op turned to AURI scientist Charan Wadhawan. She worked with the group for 18 months to create four lamb recipes with northern Indian and Moroccan flavors. Recognizing that lamb has a limited following in this country, the group also created two Indian chicken dishes.

True-blue Indian

The co-op chose three recipes to test market: Lamb Rogan Josh, a traditional dish from northern India, with onions, garlic, tomatoes and sour cream; Lamb and Apricot Tagine, a traditional Moroccan dish with apricots, dates, orange juice, onions and garlic; and Chicken Lajawab, an Indian recipe using onions, tomatoes, garlic and yogurt.

Wadhawan, who grew up near New Delhi in northern India, says these recipes capture the genuine flavors of the east, incorporating spices such as ginger, cumin, turmeric, coriander, cilantro and garam masala, a blend of spices common in India. “I haven’t seen any other Indian-style lamb dishes like these in stores,” she says.

Wadhawan helped co-op members cook about 400 servings of each dish at a federally inspected processing plant in Cannon Falls. The entrees are packaged in 12-ounce freezer trays ready to heat and serve.

Chaat-na means delicious

This winter, the new frozen foods are being marketed in Twin Cities grocery stores under the brand name “Chaat-na,” a Hindi word for delicious. The customer for Chaat-na dishes, which sell for about $4 per serving, is “affluent, well-traveled, drinks wine with meals, entertains and eats out a lot, and is interested in new foods,” Essame says.

If Chaat-na wins a following, Prairie Lamb will hold an equity drive later this year and prepare for commercial production and distribution. It’s taken the co-op six years and about $125,000 to reach this point. Essame, who led the effort along with sheep producers Joel Hasslen of Kimball and Janet McNally of Hinckley, says ventures like this could help reverse the industry’s long decline: “I think we are now in a position to come to producers with a product that could keep them in the lamb business.”

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