Young Producer and Parents Expanding into the Future

Becky Talley
Sheep Industry News Associate Editor

(October 1, 2011)  Jeremy Russell, 20, Eaton, Ind., is not majoring in ag economics at Purdue University for nothing.  As a youth he took the money from a patch of sweet corn his dad set aside for him, invested it in the stock market and used that profit to buy solid genetics to improve the family’s flock of eight sheep. Today, Jeremy along with his parents, Paul and Diane, are adding 10,000 sq. feet of barn space to expand each of their personal flocks and are actively marketing seedstock, club lamb and farmers market products from their 140-ewes.

“I have been able to pay for school so far from it,” says Jeremy.

Now that’s good economics.

From Orphan Lambs to a Full Grown Flock
The Russell Sheep Company is a good example of a family working together to diversify their operation and build a solid base for the next generation through learning from past experience and giving new ideas a chance.

“Jeremy is really the one with the dream here. He just saw an opportunity,” relates Diane about where the sheep operation is today, though it actually began with her.

At three, Diane was given orphan lambs to raise, which grew into a 10-year 4-H project. When she married Paul, the sheep followed them to their grain farm. The Russells began raising both seedstock and commercial Suffolks and their three children were active in the 4-H sheep program. While the flock at one point had grown to 170 ewes, it had diminished down to just eight when Jeremy was showing in 4-H. It was then that he made a revelation that most every sheep producer has in their heart: he liked hanging around livestock people, and, well, sheep were just his thing.

From there Jeremy focused on purchasing and selecting for purebred Suffolk genetics and the farm now is home to around 140 ewes. Jeremy owns 100 of those ewes and is hoping to get further into the club lamb business. Diane and Paul own 40, which are more focused on seedstock genetics, and more growth is planned.
“We are trying to be supportive while he builds a career,” Paul says. 

For Paul and Diane, there was no question that helping Jeremy realize his dream of being in agriculture was important, but looking at the reality of how was just as critical. As an active grain farmer, Paul says that he really evaluated the situation and future of the grain market.

“I am very concerned about the stability of land. Land I have farmed is going away as heirs take over and want to cash in on high land prices. To purchase machinery, pay cash rent or purchase land is astronomical, and I can’t give up my acres and still be profitable,” says Paul. “Right now Jeremy has very little debt on his operation, and sheep are giving him a foot into the agriculture world that grain farming might not. It’s more profitable to have sheep per acre than grain per acre.”

“Diane and I grew up in the borrow-money, grow-more game. For this next generation, it’s a high debt game and we aren’t playing that game. We can’t afford to play that game,” adds Paul.

Diversifying Within the Sheep Industry
While the Russells have focused a lot on their sheep production on breeding for seedstock sales, they took some interesting information and incorporated it into their system. It turned out to be a big move.

At the Indiana Sheep Symposium the family heard about other Indiana producers who capitalized on farmers market sales. After learning the ropes, the Russells now sell their products at 19 markets a month during their peak season and at some of them year round. They are very well placed to take advantage of several larger urban markets, as well as a university that brings in a diverse clientele.

In an age of consumers who are demanding all-natural, sustainable products, the Russells have made the term “grassfed,” a nonfactor with their grain-fed lamb. 

“We tried grass feeding exclusively, but it did not work with our breed of sheep,” says Diane. “We explain why we feed grain, and if it tastes good, consumers love it. That taught us a lesson that you don’t have to be grassfed, you just have to raise what kind of sheep you like and do what works best for you,” says Diane, adding that what has worked best for them is to allow their sheep have full access to pasture, but the lambs also receive grain.

According to Diane, it’s really just taking the time to talk to the consumer and a quality product that will keep them coming back.

“The thousands of people we talk to, and the opportunity to our story, has made an impact,” she says.

In addition, Diane also points out the importance of a good processor. The Russells’ processor is 135 miles away from their farm, but they are willing to go the distance. The processor puts in the work to provide good-looking product in a clear wrapper, has customized a label for them and is good at finding what adds value to the products.

This has been important explains Jeremy, who says they offer a sweet Italian sausage, hot Italian sausage, summer sausage, breakfast sausage, brats, gyro meat, kabob meat, Denver ribs and lolichops, as well as all the major cuts, to name a few.

“People who have never had lamb can try these products and get their feet wet,” he relates. In addition, some of the cuts have gained in popularity with the changing economic times, and when the American Lamb Board runs promotions, for example, they ran one on shanks a couple years ago and the Russells saw a huge increase in demand for that cut.

“Lamb is a premium meat, and once the recession hit, we lost $100 in sales every week for about three weeks,” says Diane. “No longer was a consumer willing to buy a leg but would buy a pound of the same leg cut into kebob meat.  Now, we can’t keep enough ground lamb.”

Besides the sales of lamb itself, the farmers markets allow the Russells a chance to set their own price as opposed to take market value, and also act as a barometer for the price point for the seedstock and club lambs.

“We set prices so we can cover costs, but the farmers markets acts as a bar for my other lambs,” Jeremy adds.

Taking Stock of the Future
The plan, says Jeremy, is to grow the flock to 200 ewes in the next year or so, and get larger down the road. Currently they are keeping all their ewes back to grow.
“If you don’t have sheep you can’t grow,” Jeremy relates. “Once you sell the replacement ewes, you can’t find them to get back in.”

He is also focused on keeping his operation diversified, selling both seedstock and club lambs, as well as keeping the farmers market business up.

“Eighty percent of business is from farmers markets, but I am going to grow the other two (seedstock and club lamb business),” Jeremy relates, adding that in the direct marketing game, he would ultimately like to get his lamb product into specialty stores and possible contracts.

In terms of the next generation coming back to the farm, Jeremy says that he sees plenty of classmates at Purdue who would like to but don’t have the opportunity, and has this advice.

“If you are doing it alone, try to find someone who is looking for help or getting ready to retire. Find a mentor. If you are coming back into the family farm, make sure you crunch the numbers and keep it profitable,” he suggests.

Paul agrees that it may be best for those who are looking to start out to find a mentor, but also emphasized that sheep require much less start up investment than other industries, including grain, and allows a lot more control than many industries.

“If you have existing facilities that are empty, there’s potential to use those buildings. If we are going to be stable we need diversity. Look into sheep, but definitely learn about them first before you jump in,” he says. 

“Get to know the people in the industry. There are really great people we’ve met. Even though sheep are a minor part of our operation, they drive our daily lives,” Diane adds.

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