NLFA Leadership School Goes to the East Coast

NLFA Leadership School Goes to the East Coast

Sheep Industry News Editor

(August 1, 2012) Building a “Foundation for the Future” for the sheep industry was the goal of this year’s National Lamb Feeders Association (NLFA) Howard Wyman Leadership School. Held in Pennsylvania, the focus of the school was on alternative markets for lamb products, whether it be direct to consumer, through farmers markets, live-animal trade or a type of on-farm harvesting.

Although it had been discussed for the past four years or so, this year marked the first time the school was held on the East Coast to help participants gain an insight to non-traditional marketing. Although for some producers attending the school, non-traditional lamb marketing is the norm; however, Milt Ward, president of NLFA from Idaho, stated it best, “The trip has been a real eye opener for us Western boys.”

Held July 8-11, the 25 school participants, in addition to a number of producers representing NLFA and the American Lamb Board, traveled Pennsylvania, including a stop in New Jersey, to soak in the knowledge from the various producers, processors and marketers that help make the sheep industry in the East tick. Attendees also participated in a group project in which each one had the opportunity to expand an operation into alternative markets. In between the tour stops, the groups brainstormed about the pros and cons of their proposed situation and provided solutions to the question. The groups were encouraged to use the experience and knowledge they gained on the tour to determine their solutions. The school then concluded with the groups presenting their solutions and getting feedback from all those in attendance.

To assist with the coordination of the schools, NLFA chose Pennsylvania shepherds, Greg and Laurie Hubbard and Joanne Evans who determined the tour stops to showcase the wide variety of opportunities in niche marketing.

Evans explains, “These examples are currently being used by East Coast shepherds but could be utilized by shepherds in almost any area of the country.  While each stop was important in its own right, many of them are interconnected. For example, the on-farm processor purchases lambs from New Holland Sales Stable to sell at his non-traditional live auction.”

The school kicked off with a dinner sponsored by Catelli Brothers, one of the largest veal and lamb companies in the United States and a major producer of fresh, easy-to-prepare consumer food products. Tony Catelli, owner, addressed the group and provided some insight into the company. Although Catelli does sell both imported and domestic lamb, the company features American lamb on billboards, truck wraps, menu features, point-of-sale materials and on-product packaging.

Catelli also dove into some of the challenges regarding the present American lamb market relaying that some retail and foodservice customers have moved to imported lamb for cost and consistency reasons. He also provided a cost comparison of American lamb vs. imported lamb for foodservice operators and retail chains.

As far as the future of American lamb, Catelli provided some insight for the industry listing:

  • the need for reduction in costs;
  • must have consistent quality and yields;
  • a need for convenient, innovative products;
  • education on menu applications for foodservice customers; and
  • education for consumers on product usage and health benefits.

Day two was the start of the bus tour. The first stop was at a small custom harvest shop and auction that sells 50 to 100 head of lambs a week in addition to cattle, chickens, goats and rabbits. Although a majority of it’s customers were once Muslim, it now sells sheep to a variety of nationalities. One comment participants found particularly interesting is that although the younger generations of immigrants are acclimating to more the traditional method of buying meat in a supermarket, therefore not buying animals on farm, the harvest shop has not experienced a drop in demand as new immigrants are consistently coming to America and want to harvest animals like they do in their homeland.

Smoker Sheep and Goat Auction in Gap, Pa., which holds a bi-monthly auction that averages 500 head of sheep and goats per sale, was the next stop on the tour. Ken Smoker opened his auction in 2004 and specializes in the ethnic trade. Smoker relayed to participants that the slower economy has even impacted the ethnic trade causing families to buy less lambs than they did just a few years ago.

A stop at a Suffolk show and seedstock operation followed the auction. MacCauley Suffolks in Atglen, Pa., raises about 180 ewes on 400 acres. Although historically this operation raised sheep for show and seedstock, Bill MacCauley is starting to diversify his product by integrating sheep for commercial production.

The stop at the New Holland Livestock Stables was intriguing for many of the school’s attendees. This sale barn averages 1,500 sheep and lambs on its Monday sales with as many as 7,000 head of sheep and goats moving through the auction process during peak demand times. As New Holland accepts lambs from all across the country, many producers attending the school had sold lambs through the auction but never had the opportunity to experience it first-hand. Although prices had slipped recently at the auction, competition remained fierce among ethnic buyers representing a variety of nationalities.

The final stop of the day was at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown, Pa., which has a variety of livestock for academic work including a Hampshire and Dorset flock.

After her experience from the first day of the school, Kristen Carr from Virginia, says, “I learned a tremendous amount about the different marketing opportunities available to producers, but I need to find one that I can cater my lambs too.” She further explained that the Hispanic population might be a good alternative market for her family’s operation as many have stopped by the farm to inquire about the sale of lambs.

Wanting to continue the family sheep operation while being employed as a teacher, Carr described the experience as a real eye opener. Not only did she learn about marketing opportunities in the East, but was also exposed to sheep production practices in the West from those in attendance. “I learned how sheep producers from all across the country are intertwined.”

Marcho Farms was the first stop on the third day of the school and one that participants found very informative. “We are the butchers of 25 years ago,” says Bob Russell, general manager, regarding the fabrication work that is done at Marcho Farms, which deals mainly with American lamb. One of the company’s marketing niches is that they offer a process verified lamb product which requires lamb to be raised by certified growers, lamb that is source verified, lamb carcasses that weigh from 60-85 pounds, lamb carcasses that are graded U.S. Department of Agriculture Choice and carcasses with a yield grade 3 or better. Russell echoed Catelli’s comments regarding customers demanding a consistent product, which can be a challenge at times. However, he concluded the visit saying, “American lamb is the best product on the market and that’s why we buy it.”

A different alternative-marketing niche for sheep products was the focus of the next stop on the tour at Valley Shepherd Creamery in Long Valley, N.J. Valley Shepherd raises approximately 500 East Fresian ewes that produce one to three pounds of milk per day. 

What sets Valley Shepherd apart from other sheep dairies is that cheese is made on-site and sold through 26 weekly farmers markets and at its three retail stores located in New Jersey and New York. Eran Wajswol explained to the group that sales of sheep cheese is “not a problem” as they are currently sold out of their top five sheep cheeses. The farm even has a waiting list for New York chefs that would like to purchase sheep cheese from them. In order to increase milk production, the farm also milks cows and goats. Milk from these animals is mixed with the sheep milk to produce a number of different products. Although Valley Shepherd sells a variety of items in its retails stores to compliment the cheeses, Wajswol says, “The success of the business has been based on the sheep milk.” 

The last stop of the tour was at the farm of Jake and Mary Stoltzfus of Myerstown, Pa., who opened their home for a family style dinner and a brief look into the Amish lifestyle. The Stoltzfus’ construct wooden silo doors and raise pigeons for New York City markets.

Taking advantage of the leadership school being hosted in his back yard, Bill Fosher of New Hampshire said meeting producers from across the country and learning about what other people see when looking at the Northeast lamb market were his main reasons for attending. 

“What we saw on this tour, is my norm,” he explains. “But it was also a good learning experience to see the down-stream process from my farm.” He specifically mentioned the stops at Catelli, Marcho Farms and the New Holland Livestock Stables as highlights of his trip.

Fosher’s take away from his learning experience is that he should look at other marketing avenues to sell his product.  Working two farmers markets a week in addition to raising sheep and a freelance job keeps him busy. 

“The farmers markets will only take so much product and they are a huge time sink. I’d rather not have to do them long term,” he explains. “It would be nice to find other ways to sell product that are still direct market, but aren’t piece by piece or one pound of ground lamb at a time.”

Coming in from a different view point than Fosher, Elizabeth Krohmer from South Dakota, attended the school to learn more about how to sell her lambs in alternative markets. “Alternative marketing isn’t very big in the Midwest, so I wanted to see how they market their animals and why they market their animals the way they do.”

Raised on a commercial ewe sheep operation and presently in college, Krohmer says she has learned more about the sheep industry by attending NLFA’s leadership schools over the past two years than she has in the classroom. Based on the knowledge she gained this year, Krohmer would like to expand her operation’s marketing avenues by targeting a young audience and teach them how to prepare lamb. Being located in a college town, she also is looking to expand her reach by marketing to international students and professors.

With a variety of markets for lamb products in the East, Ward concluded his comments saying, “I think sheep production in the East is pretty stable. They don’t have some of challenges that producers in the West are dealing with, for example with public land grazing.

“I have been to 12 leadership schools and have always gone home with more knowledge and friendships than I came with,” he says regarding the benefits of attending a school with producers from across the country. “The contacts you get that span the nation have been a real benefit for me and I suggest other larger operators from the West to take advantage of the school.”

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