It takes innovation to be a profitable farmer in 21st century Americasimply producing and raising lambs and sending them to the market just doesn’t cut it, especially when a capital city is expanding your way.
That’s not how it was back in 1928 when Katherine Harrison Haley’s great-grandparents Frank and Monnie Harrison moved their sheep farming operation 1,500 miles from Johnson County, Wyoming, to Canal Winchester, Ohio.
Succeeding generations raised their families and sheep on the 4,400-acre property 15 miles outside Columbus, the state capital.
Katherine Harrison Haley and her father Joe Blystone: “We literally had people coming up our driveway to buy our animals!”
But with urban sprawl eating up farmland and spitting out housing estates, the family decided a new farming model was needed.
It took a year of untangling red tape, but at the end of 2004 Joe Blystone opened a fully licensed on-farm custom slaughter business that immediately attracted plenty of high-paying customers.
Blystone Farm was the first in the state to be licensed for custom on-farm slaughter.
“It seems like a good way to boost profits when mega-ranching is out of the question,” says Joe’s daughter Katherine, who now runs the business, the fourth generation of the family to do so.
“Our community was changing rapidly in the 1990s, evolving from a farming region to another suburb of metropolitan Columbus,” she says. “We realized that we would have to make changes to keep our farm intact, in the family, and operational.”
The city of Columbus also had begun to change with an influx of refugees and immigrants drawn by a steady economy, affordable housing and good job prospects.
It was a far cry from the way it was when Katherine’s great-grandparents purchased the farm in 1928. Her grandfather, Virgil Harrison, spent his life on the property, raising Corriedale sheep. He was followed by Katherine’s mother, Rebecca Harrison Blystone, who retired from 30 years of teaching middle-school science to take on her father’s sheep flock.
Katherine runs a very different business from the 1928 model.
And she didn’t have to go looking for customers.
As the ethnic community grew in Columbus, the new arrivals began looking for a source for their traditional foods of fresh lamb and goat.
“We literally had people coming up our driveway asking to buy our animals,” Katherine recalls. “We knew the market was there. We had the product the customers were seeking, and we were dedicated as a family to capitalizing on this new business opportunity.”
These customers were seeking a fresh meat product, slaughtered in a traditional manner, at a location where they could take all parts of the animal they wanted.
“Although our customers can purchase frozen, imported meat at a cheaper price, they are willing to pay a bit more to buy a fresh product from a local farm,” Katherine says.
“It is also important to them, for cultural and religious reasons, that the animal is slaughtered by someone who shares their religion. Thus, we employ both Muslim and Christian butchers.
“Our customers enjoy consuming many specialty products that they cannot purchase at local stores, such as stomachs, intestines, lungs, spleens and gall bladders.”
With Blystone’s custom slaughter, the buyers own the entire animal and can take home any part they want to eat.
“We are certainly not the cheapest option, but we cater specifically to those customers who are seeking a fresh, ritually slaughtered product, which can be prepared to their specifications,” Katherine says.
A New Farm Profit Model
With a rapidly growing customer list, the Blystones quickly realized their business had to evolve.
“Initially, when the facility opened in December 2004, we envisioned we would sell lambs and goats raised by our family, and the customers would do all the work,” Katherine says. “That has changed rapidly, in that we have gone from customers completing all the work, to employing five full-time staff members and numerous part-timers.
“After opening the abattoir, we soon realized we could not meet the demand with just our own animals. We became licensed as livestock dealers and now buy from producers throughout the state.
Katherine Harrison Haley checks out animals waiting for slaughter. There will never be a substitute for hands-on quality control.
“This has worked out quite well for us, as we are purchasing quality animals that come directly from their farm to ours and it provides producers with another option on where to sell their animals.
“We process around 100 animals a week and we are able to offer more personalized services to meet the needs of our customers.”
The farm focuses more on quality of meat cover, as opposed to the breed of animal.
It aims to keep a variety of sizes and types available. The Blystones buy everything from 60-pound small lambs to 150-pound large-framed lambs. The prime market on lambs is 85-105 pounds. The farm stocks many different sizes of cull sheep but tends to sell the most in the 180-200 pound range.
“For our market pens, we learned there is a customer for every different type of sheep. Some of our customers prefer the large-framed Suffolk and Hampshire crosses, and we have also found great success selling Dorpers and Katahdins.”
After the farm lost numerous lambs to coyotes, the region’s predator, it now has five Pyrenean Mountain Dogs, known as the Great Pyrenees in the U.S. It is a breed used for thousands of years by the Basque people in and around the Pyrenees Mountains of southern France and northern Spain.
“They are very successful at protecting the flock, and we have begun breeding them to sell to other local farms,” Katherine says.
Developing The Market
The business grew mainly through word-of-mouth advertising. There’s always a large stack of flyers in the office for farm customers to share with their friends and family, but apart from this there has been minimal advertising.
“We do annually publish an ad in the Ethiopian Yellow Pages, as well as a monthly ad in the Somali Link newspaper,” Katherine says. “These are both local businesses that provide quality service, and we have been pleased with the response we have received through these publications.”
Their customer base may be local, but thanks to immigration, it also is international.
“This provides a great deal of opportunity for producers, despite the current economic situation,” Katherine says. “With rising input costs, producers must strive for efficiency in production. Part of this efficiency comes from understanding what the end user is seeking.
“Sheep producers are blessed to have such a variety of marketfrom raising hothouse lambs to breeding club lambs to engaging in fiber or dairy production. There are growing niche markets for such things as Halal processing and organic lamb. The key for the producer is to research what the customer is seeking and target a specific market.”
The farm’s goal is to have an efficient commercial flock.
“As busy as we are running the abattoir, our commercial herd needs to be a group of low-maintenance ewesminimal hoof problems, parasite resistant, excellent mothering instincts,” Katherine says.
“It is always tempting for a producer to want to keep every ewe and save every lamb. To be a successful commercial producer however, a herd can only retain those animals that earn their keep.”
At its peak, the farm’s commercial sheep flock ran at about 350 brood ewes.
Katherine’s grandfather raised Corriedales and her parents crossed those original ewes to a Dorper ram and also added some Polypay ewesa high-twinning breed developed at the U.S. Sheep Experimentation Station in Dubois, Idaho, in the late1960s.
“My mother was an amazing shepherdess,” Katherine says. “She oversaw the flock, which lambed four times a year, using the Cornell Star System as a guide. Even after my mother was diagnosed with cancer, she continued to be active with the herd until her health no longer permitted it.”
Then, as the family dedicated its time to her care, the flock became smaller.
Katherine Harrison Haley and abattoir team (left to right) Hussein Barrow, Chief Butcher Zac Anderson and Mohamed Mohamed.
Supplying Everything Eager Retail Buyers Want
“As our processing business grew, we had to decide whether to focus on the production or the processing end of the business,” she says. “We became licensed to purchase livestock, and this led to a gradual cutback in both our sheep and goat herds.”
The farm’s market pens usually have about 50 sheep and 50 goats at any given time.
“We try to have a diverse supply to meet our customer needs,” Katherine says. “We usually have more stock at the start of the month, as we sell more animals at the beginning of the month. Food Stamp benefits re-up during the first week of the month, so we tend to sell a lot of goats then.”
The demand is steady throughout the year.
“We are mindful of the major holidays that our customers celebrate,” Katherine says. “For our Orthodox customers, we sell a great deal of cull sheep for Orthodox Christmas and Easter. Another major holiday is Ethiopian New Year, which falls on Sept. 11. During these holidays, we ensure we have numerous large ewes available.”
The busiest holiday for the farm is the Eid al Adha, which falls 60 days after the end of Ramadan for Muslims. The Eid al Adha recognizes the faithfulness of the Patriarch Abraham when God commanded him to sacrifice his son. (Muslims believe the son that was offered up was Abraham’s first-born son, Ishmael.) When Abraham went to obey the command, the Koran says God rewarded him by providing a ram lamb to be sacrificed in place of the boy.
To honor this, every adult male Muslim is expected to offer a sacrifice to God during the three-day holiday, to thank God for his blessings. Half the meat is used to celebrate with friends and family, while the other half is given to those less fortunate.
Blystone Farm has an exemption from the state of Ohio to do religious slaughter and does not stun the sheep or goats. The employees are trained in ritual kills and use a blade to sever both the carotid and jugular arteries in one stroke, thus shutting down the neuro-sensory system and allowing the animal to bleed out fully.
“This is a method with which we are comfortable as producers,” Katherine says. “It is important to us the animals are treated well in life and are handled humanely during the harvest.”
The method meets the requirements for Halal slaughter, as well as fulfilling the preference for the Orthodox Christians.
Hussein Barrow with a processed carcass. The farm caters to a traditional ethnic clientele, such as Halal and Orthodox buyers.
Getting the farm slaughter permit was an odyssey.
For many years there were significant gray areas regarding on-farm slaughter in Ohio. As the state legislature became aware the immigrant and refugee community was seeking a fresh meat product, they worked to codify laws regarding on-farm slaughter.
“It was very important to us that we met all necessary codes to be a sanctioned operation,” Katherine says. “The Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Division of Meat Inspection was a wonderful entity to work with, as they laid out the guidelines we needed to meet in order to be licensed.”
It took about a year to work through the process of designing the facility, applying for permits and meeting all the requirements of a variety of agencies in order to open.
“My dad designed and constructed the building and worked with the Environmental Protection Agency on plans for disposing of waste,” Katherine says.
“My father is, without a doubt, the brains of this business. He saw this unique business opportunity and had the drive to capitalize on it.
“He carried out all the meetings with the various regulatory entities during the planning phases and ran the business, with my mother overseeing the sheep production end, until I came on in May 2005 to help.
“Thanks to my dad’s efforts, by 2006 the business was at a point where I could run it full-time, allowing me to step away from part-time teaching to pay the bills. Although he is no longer involved in day-to-day operations, his is a very hands-on role as an owner.”
What It Takes For Success
Opening the slaughter business required a great deal of dedication and sacrifice by the family.
“To a certain extent, we entered this business with blinders on,” Katherine says. “Although we had no experience in the realm of meat processing, we saw the opportunity to tap into this niche market and we were committed as a family to making the new business work.
“When we simply raised sheep and goats and took them to the stockyard, it was easier in some ways, yet we had to accept whatever price we were given that day at the sale. By opening our own business, we took more control of the value of our product.”
The family says it has taken a great deal of hard work to get the business to where it is today.
“We are incredibly fortunate to have developed a great network of producers that sell to us and a wonderful group of customers that purchase from us.”
She says the business couldn’t have succeeded without the staff.
“It took a long time to recruit such a great group of workers, but they are amazing,” she says. “It is a unique group: our Chief Butcher Zac Anderson (a local young man); our assistants Mohamed Mohamed, Hussein Barrow and Hodan Abdi (who are Somali immigrants); my student assistants from the local high school; and our part-time workers who include a retired Ethiopian gentleman and students from the Ohio State University meat laboratory.”
What may be strange requests in most butchers’ shops is par for the course at the farm.
“Some customers request either male or female animals, and from time to time we get a request for an all-white or all-black animal,” Katherine says. “On the processing end, we skin a lot of heads to be cut up for soup, clean stomachs and intestines, prepare bile for use as a spice, and any request we can reasonably carry out.”
The farm conducts inspected processing one day a week for shops and restaurants and custom processing four days a week.
On full inspection days, a state inspector is on-site to examine the animals prior to the harvest and check the carcasses to ensure the quality of the product.
“Usually an inspector will be out on at least one of our custom days to check we are meeting the sanitary processing requirements,” Katherine says.
Joe Blystone with son Josh. Traditional meat production offers hope for a good future.
Direct Marketing May Thwart Professional Sympathist Industry
Despite the farm being at the sharp end of meat production, it has yet to be targeted by animal rights activists.
“It probably is because of the nature of our businessa female-managed family business based on traditional agriculture that employs legal immigrants and caters to the ethnic community,” Katherine says.
“That being said, the manner in which most animal rights groups carry out their agenda truly bothers me. I have many friends that reside in the city and are interested and open to learning about what I do.
“Unfortunately, most Americans no longer have a connection to agriculture. Their only interaction with animals is often their pet cat or dog. They do not always appreciate that working with livestock is entirely different.
“Thus, it is easy for animal-rights groups to tap into the sentiment that Americans have for their pets and mislead these well-meaning people regarding the production of livestock. This is why it is so important for those of us involved in agriculture to speak out about what we do.
“We need to connect with other producers to demonstrate our unity. We need to reach out to our political leadership to educate them on agriculture. Most of all, we must share our stories with the public so that agriculture is better understood by the consumer.”