You may have wondered about the feasibility of small-scale meat-selling through the mail.
Well, wonder no more!
Here’s the story of some truly entrepreneurial California shepherdesses, Carol Pasheilich (pronounced pa-SHY-lish) and Maggie Howard, with sharp minds and great American courage, who showed it can be done!
Carol answered a whole slew of my questions-unlocking a lot of mysteries about this exciting new business.
We first wanted to know:
Why Not Conventional Sale Barns & Auctions?
Carol replied, “The delicious and mild flavor of Romney made it obvious to us that this was worth more than a lamb broker would pay.
“The other fact that made this lamb special is the fact that we very much believe in grass-fed meats. Grass fed livestock is perfect for us since we pasture feed and lay up our own hay. In addition, grass-fed meats are high in Omega-3 fatty acids and have proven health benefits.
“Thus, we determined to develop a customer base for our grass fed lamb. There are several hurdles concerning the potential customer that need to be addressed:
- Lamb meat consumers know nothing of taste differences between breeds,
- Consumers are confused about the health benefits of meat, and
- Consumers are ignorant of the environmental positives that farmers/ranchers can contribute during their animal production cycle.”
Carol says that even the Romney breed of sheep, which they mainly raise-with its mild, delicate meat-still can’t be expected to generate sales on its own. Few Americans are aware there’s a difference in lamb flavor between breeds.
Carol with a Romney ram.
Then too, because they live in a rural area, where practically everyone eats meat from their own farms and ranches, it would be like “carrying coals to Newcastle” to try to sell at retail prices locally.
Instead, they promote their meat as “mild and succulent,” “grown in America by American flock owners,” and that it’s “delivered quick-frozen to buyers’ homes via Federal Express.” All this “at an affordable price.”
Carol says “Once the consumer tastes our lamb meat, they become loyal, repeat customers and refer to their friends.”
They also put out a newsletter to their paying clients. It’s here that they can actually educate buyers further about their sustainable agricultural practices and the health benefits of meat consumption, plus how the Romney breed fits into that picture. They even use the newsletter to share easy but delicious recipes they’ve collected.
Getting Cooks To Buy
That last point was important, because, as Carol so wisely observes, “Americans are “warmer-uppers” rather than cooks.”
Both Maggie and Carol pride themselves on their highly advanced skills as cooks. (That’s often true of folks who love to cook, as they do.) It occurred to them that the chef’s magazines they’d always read were going out to folks who enjoy top-quality foods. So they rented magazine mailing lists. As Carol put it “Since this represents a self-selected customer base, we could justify the sizeable capital outlay.”
They chose not to charge this cost totally against their ewes, billing them instead for just the marketing postage itself, which was also very significant.
How To Set Prices
They priced each lamb “package” so that 1.5 orders paid the cost of mailing to 1,000 names on the list. From this, they got between 1 to 3% order responses (10 to 30 orders).
That left them with setting a gainful price without gouging. It required finding exact feed costs/ewe/year, including dry, breed-time, three stages of gestation, and lactation. They added in vaccines and other vet costs.
Carol hastened to point out that hay could easily rise from $75 to $125/ton in a drought.
Their Romneys have a very respectable 180% lambing rate, so they divided the ewe’s annual costs by 1.8.
Then they added up the cost of the lambs themselves, to 120 lbs., including creep rations (mother’s milk is part of her lactation cost), plus Bo-Se injection and ear tagging.
Carol says lamb costs vary from lamb to lamb. One ewe might bear two lambs, and each gain 1.2 lbs. daily. Another ewe’s lamb may only make a half-lb. daily.
Every day on feed costs money. So they’ve selected for twinning, breed-standard conformation and average daily gain (ADG). So far this has cut average feed cost by two months’ worth.
Meatpacking was another cost. Their interstate shipping and restaurant sales necessitated that they use a USDA rather than a state facility. That added more carriage costs to the harvest point. In all, USDA packing is a full third of the buyer’s cost.
Lastly, was the packaging and FedEx: First they had to find adequate Styrofoam containers and cardboard shipping boxes. Then came the dry ice, to insure the product stayed frozen in transit. They make the dry ice themselves neatly and cheaply, with a small attachment that fits onto a CO2 cylinder. The cylinder isn’t cheap. This year they’ll try test mailings with frozen gel packs to family members instead of the dry ice. If that works, they’ll compare costs between the gel and the dry ice.
Carol warns that while FedEx’s second-day air service has done a great job, buyers will only pay so much for shipping. If it goes too high, they’re gone! So they absorb all shipping that runs over $30.00, charging it against their break-even price.
Knowing the break even cost, they now multiplied by the profit they wanted to make, and divided by pound.
What Sells Best
While they do offer whole and half-lambs, most customers buy for “special” occasions, choosing “gourmet packages” that averaged 15 lbs. They offer several types of these packages, so buyers can select based on their preference of cuts.
Tawanda Farms began with the great Romney breed, highly sought by hand spinners for its lustrous fleece and well-defined crimp of 4 to 8 inch staple.
Part of Tawanda Farm’s 2003 lamb crop.
Romney is also well known for very mild, juicy meat. Breed versatility is a big plus for cash-flow. After all, first rate Romney breeding stock is their prime aim-it has to be, because the improved performance they get through selection must boost profits on meat and wool sales.
Their original stock was from Sears and Moosehill Romneys. Last year (2002) their yearling ram won Champion White Romney Ram at Oregon’s Black Sheep Gathering.
Carol says “His progeny are on the ground this year and look extremely promising: great fleece, broad mouths, dark black points and capacious bodies.”
As noted previously, flock average lambing rates are 180%. Their lambs have an ADG of 0.70 lbs.
It’s a good thing Romney meat, once tasted, sells itself. They sell only promising animals as breeders, the rest go on the plate. Which provides yet another item to sell (besides meat and wool): machine-washable pelts.
But there’s more: Carol reports, “Another advantage of the Romney is that the breed is medium sized and its individuals are very gentle and responsive. Both of us are rather small, older gals, so the Romney’s cooperative nature was important to us when selecting a breed.
They raised capital to buy their 120-acre farm in northern California from the sale of their jointly owned lodging business. (That business put three boys through college and grad school!) Their new place had several outbuildings, along with a hay barn and a lambing barn. So there was no second investment “raising barns and sheds.”
Then they spent a lot of time poring over college textbooks on forages. And they got hands-on “crash courses from very sweet and patient local farmers who taught us to flood irrigate, use our tractor and make our own grass hay.” The latter has been very important, because even with the sheep-grazing and on-farm hay use, they still have enough hay to sell for additional income.
They feel very fortunate that premier Romney breeder Suzanne Sears took them under her wing, selecting 14 of her older, experienced ewes, and facilitating their purchase of a wonderful, unrelated ram with eastern genetics, bred by Carla Hellander. His remote genes meant they wouldn’t need to bring in a new ram for some time-very cost effective.
They’re now running 75 ewes and five rams. With rotational grazing, their farm will support 110 breeding animals.
Secrets To Success
Like most successful entrepreneurs, they love to work. Any good flockmaster is familiar with the routine: 10 to 12-hour days, every day; fence repair, re-applying ear tags, working on records and the flock book, new data entered, calling back potential buyers, etc. Luckily they share the same business philosophy-and they mean business! Before ever even starting, they set long-term goals, then listed and defined specific steps they’d need to accomplish in order to reach those goals.
Once a week they hold a business meeting-with typed minutes. The meeting pursues the marketer’s tradition of questioning until they find a weak link: What steps toward a goal were met during the past week? How do tabulated lamb growth statistics compare with last year? What ways can we hold the line on creep-feed costs? What time will we meet with that chef?
About a third of their labor is spent on the business plan or supporting data-for each hour the flock uses, they budget 20 minutes for paperwork. Example: In tracking lamb ADG, they weigh the flock weekly. While weighing, they can anticipate and/or treat problems. When done with the scales, they enter and evaluate all data.
They report, “We strongly feel that this combination, loving our Romneys and the work entailed with them, coupled with a conscious awareness of the farm as a business-supports the two most important things: Consistent quality and monetary income.”
Carol’s business background and people-oriented skills have her doing the business promotion, which consists of physical brochure development, computer entry, invoice creation, “cold calls” to restaurants, etc. Data collection, data evaluation, genetic research and animal conformation evaluation go hand in hand with Maggie’s science background. And most happily, both enjoy prepping and seeing to their show and breeding stock.
With grass-fed lamb, the lamb harvest is seasonal, not year-round. That means selling mostly frozen product.
Many restaurants use almost solely frozen meats, so lamb can move well. Carol says “It is important to meet personally with the chef or chef/owner. Have a sample available to leave with them for their taste tests. A follow-up meeting is essential.”
She says you have to have a flexible enough price margin to “meet or beat the restaurant’s usual supplier.” She adds “It is important not to take rejection personally, or as a reflection on your product. If turned down, ask why?”
Sometimes you can accommodate. “If not, oh well. The restaurant business is very difficult and their margins are tighter than ours.”
There are two basic types of work at Tawanda Farms:
- Business promotion and data collection/evaluation and
- Physical labor.
Carol says, “Because of our size and age, we share most of the physical chores, accomplishing them with finesse, not power.
If you’d like an independent lamb and/or wool operation that pays well, you can’t do better than emulate these ladies and their work with elite Romney stock. It would be well worth a call to Carol or Maggie to find out more about all the good that well-bred sheep can do for a high-yield independent sheep business: Tawanda Farms, Carol Pasheilich & Maggie Howard, 935 Lichens Rd., Montague, CA 96064; Phone: (530) 459-0966; E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org, Website: www.tawandafarms.com