Niman Ranch: Commitment to Quality
By AMY TRINIDAD
Sheep Industry News Editor
(Nov. 1, 2013) Niman Ranch may be most well-known for its pork products; however, it was in the 1990s that Niman Ranch started offering lamb to complement their beef line due in part to the dedicated work of Al Medvitz and Jeannie McCormack of California. Today, fewer than a dozen sheep ranching families from a variety of regions produce the lamb the company sells nationwide.
After many years of living in an urban setting, Medvitz and McCormack moved back to McCormack’s family ranch in Rio Vista, Calif., in 1987. Soon thereafter, the number of lamb buyers available to bid on the ranch’s lambs dwindled down to one and McCormack felt like she wasn’t getting a fair price, so she took matters into her own hands. With the help of her mother’s Christmas card list, she marketed boxed lamb and soon enough their direct market business took off.
“I always knew there was a better market for our lambs out there someplace,” McCormack explains, who then targeted her marketing efforts to restaurants in San Francisco.
It was through a friend in the restaurant business that Medvitz and McCormack met Marsha McBride, a chef at Zuni, who also turned out to be McCormack’s fourth cousin. “From then on we became fast friends and Marsha become our most relentless promoter.”
Through McBride’s promotional work of McCormack Ranch Lamb, she introduced Bill Niman to Medvitz and McCormack. It was at that time Niman Ranch made the decision to diversify their product offering by adding lamb to their meat line. And as a matter of fact, Medvitz and McCormack can also be credited with introducing Niman Ranch’s first hog farmer to Niman soon after they started supplying lamb.
“Adding lamb to the mix gave Niman Ranch a chance to diversify and provide another program other than beef to its chefs,” explains Cody Hiemke, Niman’s lamb buyer. “It remains one of the smaller segments of the company, but I truly believe that Niman Ranch lamb is the highest-quality, and most consistent product available nationwide.”
This notion of providing a consistent, high-quality product was just as important when the company first started offering lamb as it is today. It is also the basis of its growth as it soon became apparent to Medvitz and McCormack that they needed to provide more lambs. They started by altering their lambing program so that they lambed a couple different times a year and looked to their neighbors for assistance. In addition to Medvitz and McCormack’s 1,600 ewe flock, they enlisted several area ranchers that could assist, which included Ian and Margaret Anderson and the Hamilton Brothers.
“That was the nucleus of the California outfit, but we soon outgrew that,” explains McCormack. And due to the difficult feeding situation in the winter, the group started including Utah sheep producers and others from the upper Midwest soon joined.
Secret to Success
The secret behind the continued success is the grid that Niman Ranch uses to pay for their lambs.
“We pay the producers on a grid and provide them a target for which we are looking for a certain size and fat cover on the lamb,” says Hiemke. “The biggest thing is that we have a small group of producers that are fully bought into the program and care about the program enough that they are going to make sure they are producing that high-quality, consistent product.”
The sweet spot on the grid is about a 61 to 70 pound carcass with a yield grade of 2 explains Hiemke, “We pay a considerable premium for that kind of lamb, which is why our producers stay with Niman Ranch and strive to produce that just-right lamb.”
“The grid is key to quality lamb,” explains McCormack, who joked that she dreaded the grid at first but now it is key to their profitability.
Even with the variety of genetics each ranch produces, Hiemke says that the producers have learned to select for that right lamb. The lambs are handled and sorted before they are shipped.
“The producers have learned how to handle those live lambs with a vision of what their carcass is going to look like,” explains Hiemke.
In addition, the group of ranchers have learned to communicate with each other and be open with what they are producing to ensure Niman Ranch is provided with a consistent supply of lambs. When a load is shipped, a carcass report is sent to each producer.
“Everyone sees how everyone else is doing as far as how their lambs place on the grid,” Hiemke says.
“This type of marketing situation requires a completely new mindset for the producers,” says McCormack, who explains that the cooperative model of Niman Ranch has been essential to its success.
Relationship with the Chefs
Niman Ranch distributes their products across the country and takes pride in having a close working relationship with the chefs that prepare the meat. To help educate chefs about their animal care and environmental agriculture practices, Niman Ranch invites chefs to the ranches for an up-close look of the livestock operations and a chance to develop a personal relationship with the families that supply their meat.
“Our chefs have gone on a variety of tours to see what the Niman Ranch brand is all about,” relays Brian Henning, chef at Deer Valley, a resort located in Park City, Utah.
Clark and Patty Willis, Utah sheep producers and Niman Ranch lamb suppliers, hosted Henning and a group of chefs from Deer Valley Resorts who cooked a lamb barbecue for a group of sheep industry researchers this past summer. The event provided an avenue for those in the industry to learn from the chefs and more about how Niman Ranch fits into the entire U.S. sheep industry.
Henning raved about the product they are provided through Niman Ranch, which is sourced from Willis’ ranch in Laketown, Utah, just off the shores of Bear Lake.
“It’s the combination of local products and the quality of product you get with Niman. It’s the same every time we get it. It’s about consistency, and that is what makes the restaurant business last – consistency,” explains Henning.
Willis joined Niman Ranch more than 10 years ago after taking over the sheep operation from his father. In fact, Willis says his grandfather was the first to bring sheep into Bear Lake’s valley in the 1870s.
“If it weren’t for Niman, I wouldn’t be in the sheep business,” he says, explaining that he now takes pride in the lambs he produces. Before joining Niman, Willis says that he didn’t know how his lambs were grading and where they were going. “There was no real feedback. This way we get to follow our lambs all the way through now, and about 50 percent of our lambs are coming back to Utah.”
The Willis’ host the chefs that prepare their lamb at their ranch every year now. “It gives me some glory and makes it well worth it.”
Although Hiemke explains that Niman Ranch’s current supply of lamb from its producers is appropriate for its level of demand, the one bit of advice he does offer to lamb producers is, “The industry needs to focus on the end users. Be it consumers or chefs, they appreciate a consistent, high-quality product that doesn’t have a lot of price fluctuation.”
These three points are what has worked for Niman Ranch to maintain a steady amount of business over the years and in the future. For more information about Niman Ranch, visit www.nimanranch.com .