August 15, 2003
Business Has Gone to the Dogs
This Oregon couple direct markets every part of the lamb possible, including lamb livers, which are converted into dog biscuits.
By Tharran E. Gaines
People in the pork industry like to claim that they use everything from a hog but its ?squeal.? However, as efficient as they may be, the hog processors have nothing on Susie Wilson.
As a partner in SuDan Farm near Canby, Ore., she and her husband, Dan, raise Coopworth and Border Leicester sheep for breeding stock and market lamb in every conceivable way possible, including U.S. Department of Agriculture lamb cuts, yarn, tanned sheepskins, wool felt and other sheep parts. However, there never was much call for lamb hearts and livers ? that is, until Susie started using them to make dog cookies. Today, she and Dan market almost every part of the sheep at farmers? markets in and around nearby Portland and Salem, Ore., including those hard-to-sell livers, disguised as dog treats.
?I kind of got started in the cookie business by accident,? she confesses. ?We have about 50 ewes on 20 acres; so being such a small operation, we started selling direct to the consumer about two years ago through a number of farmers? markets. Well, when you?re direct marketing the meat yourself, one of the things you often have left over is liver, because nobody seems to want that anymore,? she adds. ?At the same time, we had a border collie that was just a real picky eater, and I had run across a recipe for dog cookies made from liver. I figured, ?Why not substitute lamb liver instead?? So I adapted it to fit our needs and began baking them.?
Discovering that her dog loved the baked treats, and still having plenty of liver left over, Susie began mixing up extra batches of ?lamb cookies,? cutting them out in unique shapes, like fire hydrants. They sold like hotcakes at the craft shows and farmers? markets.
?When we looked at food regulations, we found there weren?t any regulations on baked dog treats,? she adds. ?So we began experimenting with different recipes and different ways to package them.?
In the end, however, Wilson says the recipe is pretty simple. She starts with about four to six lambs? livers -- although she often adds left-over hearts and kidneys, as well -- that have been cooked and pureed in a blender. She then adds wheat flour, eggs, vegetables and seasoning to make a dough that is rolled out, cut into biscuits and baked in the oven. On occasion, she will puree and freeze extra quantities of livers, so she can omit that first step on a future batch. As a general rule, one lamb?s liver will make about two cups of puree which is adequate for 1-1/2 to 2 pounds of cookies.
?It?s actually turned into a nice little sideline,? she says. ?The problem is, I can barely keep up. My dream now is to find a commercial bakery where I could take about 300 pounds of lamb liver and have them bake them in bulk,? she continues. ?Unfortunately, I don?t know of any place that will do that.?
In the meantime, Wilson says she has had to abandon the fancy cookie cutter in the interest of time. Today, she uses a roller-type cracker cutter that cuts the dough into square treats that resemble a Triscuit in shape and size. Once the treats are baked in the oven for about 45 minutes and allowed to cool, they?re packaged in two-ounce bags that sell for around $2.00 per bag.
?Since they don?t have any shortening or oil in them, they bake very hard and require no refrigeration,? she explains. ?In fact, I?ve never had any of them mold.?
The lamb cookies seldom set around long enough to get old, though, since Wilson is already selling all the lamb cookies she can bake. She has even had to turn down invitations to be a vendor at local dog shows, due to her inability to meet demand.
?Nationally, the pet food business is a billion dollar industry,? she relates. ?And, as we?ve discovered, people don?t have any hesitation about spending money on their pets. They?ll buy a treat for them before they buy something for themselves.?
Still, the Wilsons have plenty to offer dog owners and consumers besides pet treats. At the four to five farmers? markets they attend each week, the couple offers 17 different cuts of lamb meat, two kinds of sausage, tanned sheep skins, raw and spun wool and a variety of wool items ... all made from their own lambs and lambs they buy from neighboring producers.
?We have all the lambs processed at a local USDA custom processor; and we process lambs every week,? Susie explains. ?As a result, we?re able to offer a wide choice of cuts, including shanks, ribs, kabobs, roasts, boneless roasts, loins, chops, shoulder, 4-bone and 8-bone French racks and leg of lamb. We also sell raw bones for pets.?
One of the most popular new items, she explains, is the two types of smoked, fully cooked sausage. One type is made from 80-percent lamb and 20-percent pork, while the other is 100-percent lamb -- an item requested by a few customers who are opposed to eating pork.
?In addition to the lamb items we sell directly to the consumer at farmers? markets, we also supply 17 high-end restaurants, four to five grocery stores and a few personal chefs,? she adds.
With the growing access to small-scale woolen mills in the last five to 10 years, Susie has even added several value-added wool products to their farmers? market offerings. Those include spun yarn in natural and dyed colors, natural wool felt and three sizes of wool blankets.
Susie has even taken her entrepreneurial skills a step further and begun cutting out felt insoles for shoes and boots. Those, too, seem to sell out every week.
?I guess you could say we?re always trying to figure out ways to use every part of the lamb possible,? Susie concludes.
The best part is, the Wilsons aren?t selfish about sharing their secrets with other sheep producers. Susie even shared her lamb dog cookie recipe with a 4-H club that was looking for a fund-raising project. If you?d like more information yourself, contact the Wilsons at 503-651-LAMB (5262) or e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org