From One Side of the Industry to Another

From One Side of the Industry to Another

By AMY TRINIDAD
Sheep Industry News Editor

(July 1, 2012) For 19 years, Don Van Nostran of Ohio made the 60-mile daily trip from Athens to Canal Winchester to work in the wool trade at Mid-States Wool Growers Co-op Association. He went through a number of ups and downs in regards to the wool market during those years. However, after building a new wool warehouse and paying off the building’s mortgage, he felt comfortable leaving that position with his head held high and follow his true desire: start his own business raising and feeding lambs to market to a national grocery chain.

“Before I left Mid-States, I had decided this is what I wanted to do,” Van Nostran explains, owner of Will-O-Wood Sheep Farm and Will-O-Wood Lamb Company LLC. “The business has grown and although there have been some challenges I hadn’t expected, it has met all my expectations.”

Van Nostran now raises 125-140 head of ewes and feeds 450 lambs and sells the carcasses to four Kroger stores in Columbus and the southeast region of Ohio. 

Through his many years of working at the Ohio State Fair, Van Nostran had contacts in the meat merchandising department at his local Kroger grocery store which served to be the launch store for this program. His first delivery of two lamb carcasses occurred in January 2009. Now, he moves 18-20 lambs every two weeks between the Kroger stores.

Although he says it takes a good amount of coordination, the payoff is that he receives a paycheck every other week which helps with the cash flow of his lamb-feeding business. Part of that coordination includes his ability to have a number of the same-sized lambs ready at one time, which is why Van Nostran likes to have the lambs on feed for 60-90 days to produce a consistent product. He then delivers the lot to a local state-inspected processing facility and delivers the whole carcasses to the store.

With this coordination, Van Nostran is also able to set his prices in the fall for the following year. This, in turn, benefits the consumer as prices for his lamb meat don’t fluctuate through the year.

“Although I have to put in the extra time in coordinating the lambs, feeding them and delivering the carcasses, I get to see the meat cutters, my lambs hanging on hooks in the stores’ cooler and the customers buying my product. The customers like that the prices don’t change. They know what they are going to pay for the lamb next week and six months from now, plus they know it’s a fresh, consistent and local product.”

Challenges
The challenge to delivering lamb year round to a national grocery store is that the product must be available all year long. The solution for Van Nostran is to buy feeder lambs from area producers, or satellite farms, and set up his sheep operation to breed out of season.

“If I sell a producer a buck, I tell them I will buy their lambs at around 60-80 pounds,” he says.

“Servicing stores with fresh product 12 months out of the year is an issue the industry has never really addressed,” Van Nostran says, adding that looking at sheep that breed out of season and the use of reproductive tools such as CIDRs (controlled internal drug releasing devices) could assist in the solution.

Demand from Consumers
Like in many cities across the United States, the locavore movement is strong in Athens. Dave Shull, Kroger general manager in Athens, says, “I believe local products are supported by our community, and they support us because we provide those products. This is our point of difference in the market.”

Shull explains that lamb sales in the store have increased considerably since the introduction of Will-O-Wood lamb in its meat case. To help increase sales, Van Nostran and his wife, Meta, have done a number of in-store demonstrations to promote the product.

The support of consumers is evident in that the Athens Kroger store in No. 1 in lamb sales in the central Kroger division. And the other two Kroger stores that carry Will-O-Wood lamb in that division are No. 2 and No. 3 in lamb sales. In fact, Van Nostran’s lamb cuts are typically sold out before he can make the next delivery of product.

“I can compete with the national suppliers of lamb because consumers like the local aspect and I think the packaging makes my products desirable,” he says.

Expansion Efforts 
Will-O-Wood Sheep Farm and Will-O-Wood Lamb Company LLC are nestled into land that is ideal for sheep production. With the area’s abundant feed sources and land resources, not to mention a close proximity to metropolitan areas in which lamb is in demand, Van Nostran says he sees more producers coming into the industry. Not only does he provide his expertise regarding sheep production to these new producers, but he can also serve as a market for their lambs.

Van Nostran’s advice to new producers, “I tell them to get a good white-faced ewe and breed it to a good black-faced buck and call me when their lambs weigh 75 pounds, and I will provide a market for them.”

His other piece of advice for new producers is to start with 10 head, not 100. He further explains that they will experience the same number of issues with 10 as they will with 100, but they will be able to handle those issues more efficiently with the 10. 

These are just the type of operations that are popping up along the countryside in southeast Ohio says Roger High, executive director of the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association, “We are now dealing with a lot of small, farm flock producers. The local movement has brought these types of producers into our group.”

Plans may not be in the immediate future to expand the Will-O-Wood Sheep Farm; however, Van Nostran says he is looking at expanding their lamb feeding and marketing phase of the farm.

“I am counting on the satellite farms that I work with to produce lambs to expand their flock to allow me to buy more lambs for my feeding program. Our ewe flock is going to remain at about 125-150 ewes unless my son joins the operation,” he explains.