Raising Lamb for Meat and Selling it at the Farmers Market
Capture Premium Lamb Prices by Selling at Farmers Markets
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By Matthew Ernst – Nikki and Scott Royer took on the duty of managing her family’s 125–acre farm in Clinton, Indiana, in 2000, after Nikki’s father’s untimely death. “My parents had showed and sold purebred cattle,” said Nikki—now the fifth generation in her family to work the farm, “and there was a large herd to maintain and care for.” Nikki and Scott had started a small ewe flock even before their 1994 wedding. They wanted to develop a more diverse income from the farm, and saw raising lamb for meat as a niche market to grow the farm business. “You couldn’t find any lamb in the grocery store,” said Nikki. In 2003, they started selling lamb at farmers markets.
Today, Royer Farm Fresh Beef, Lamb & Pork sells beef, pork and more than 5,000 pounds of lamb year–round at farmers markets in Indianapolis and Terre Haute. Some sales are also made directly from the farm and by online orders. The family is also raising chickens for eggs and meat, but “lamb is definitely still our niche,” says Nikki. “And we have seen our lamb sales grow as our beef or pork customers try lamb and like it.”
Rising Farmers Market Numbers
The number of farmers markets in the U.S. has doubled in each of the past two decades. This creates more opportunities for those interested in selling homemade food, produce and meat nationwide in a classic form of direct farm marketing. In 2004, the year after the Royers first sold lamb at an Indianapolis–area farmers market, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) counted 3,706 farmers markets nationwide. In August 2012, there were 7,864 farmers markets counted nationally, a 9.6 percent increase over 2011 numbers.
More farmers markets means that the burden of organizing and starting a market is not as likely to fall on producers today as it was 20 years ago. But shepherds farther away from population centers must be willing to drive to reach more customers. “We drive 90 to 100 miles each way every Saturday to serve two markets in the Indianapolis area,” said Nikki Royer, who also sells at the Terre Haute, Ind., market, 20 miles from their farm.
Raising Lamb for Meat: Still a Niche Product at Farmers Markets
Farmers market customers tend toward a more diverse diet than typical consumers. Even so, farmers market sellers say lamb still faces a hurdle to sell. “You can’t go to a farmers market to sell only $200 worth of lamb and have it worth your time,” said Nikki Royer. To increase weekly sales volume, she said, lamb should be paired with one or more other meats at farmers market.
Mac Stone agreed. He is a Georgetown, Ky., farmer who also directs Kentucky State University’s Center for Sustainability of Farms and Families. “Our family sells about 15 lambs each fall through the Lexington (Ky.) farmers market,” said Stone. The family also sells beef and poultry under their Elmwood Stock Farm name; Mac’s wife, Ann Bell, manages all the marketing and her brother and father manage produce and beef production and labor. Mac manages the farm’s lamb and poultry projects and helps staff the Saturday farmers market booth. “We definitely are able to move more lamb because we have beef and chicken,” said Stone.
Flockmasters raising lamb for meat who are unable to offer meat from other species at a farmers market should not overlook the market’s potential value. Some farmers markets allow vendors to sell locally grown products not produced on their own farm. “I feel like if you want to have a strong local food structure, you have to allow some reselling (at farmers markets and other direct markets),” said Nikki Royer.
A shepherd might be able to partner with someone already selling meat at a farmers market. If that is a possibility in your area, work with the vendor to provide information to the customers about the lamb. “Many farmers market customers want to know that they’re buying from the person who raises it,” said Mac Stone. “If you’re selling to someone who is reselling, be very clear about whose lamb it is,” he added. “Offer to allow the seller to list your farm name and describe how the lamb was raised. The farmers market customer wants some relationship with the farm where the product is raised,” said Stone.
Of course, you also might be able to sell lamb alongside the produce items more conventionally offered at farmers markets. Smaller markets offer opportunities to try all sorts of market pairings. At their larger farmers market stand, Mac Stone said, Elmwood Stock Farm has found it helpful to segregate meat from vegetable sales. “We have our meat table separate from vegetables,” he said. “We think that sells more.”
Farmers Market Lamb Selling Tips
If you do have access to a local market, but you do have the ability to offer more products and an interest in interacting directly with customers as you build a market for lamb, then farmers market selling could be for you. Here are some important tips suggested for selling lamb at local farmers markets:
Regulations, Food Safety
Work with local and state agencies to ensure you’re following all pertinent regulations; farmers markets often provide resources to guide new vendors through such issues. Determine whether the lamb has to be processed at a state–inspected or a USDA–inspected facility to sell at your local market, and be sure to obtain all necessary memberships, licenses, and product liability insurance. “Some places may also require that your on–farm (freezer) storage is inspected,” said Kentucky’s Mac Stone.
Relationship With the Processor
When they set out to transform the family’s beef seedstock enterprise into a full–time direct meat marketing effort, Nikki and Scott Royer quickly saw a strength in having a state–inspected processor less than five miles from their farm. “There is a shortage of processors,” said Nikki Royer. “Especially those used to cutting up lamb.”
Mac Stone said that the producer–processor relationship can extend all the way to how a product is packaged. “We work with a processor that can vacuum pack each cut individually,” he said. “It costs extra, but the (farmers market) customer can see the product.” Stone cautioned lamb sellers to watch out for sharp bones that can puncture such packaging. “Damaged packaging will create ‘shrink,’ or sales loss,” he said. “The less handling the better.”
How much to charge for products at direct markets can be tricky. “We don’t print prices on the packages, just weights,” said Mac Stone. “That allows us to adjust seasonally.”
Setting a target sales level per cut or per animal helps producers keep a handle on their profits. “We set a target price of $250 in meat sales per lamb to cover our cost of production, processing, and the time we spend marketing,” said Mac Stone. “So even though we keep our leg at $10.95 throughout the whole season (late summer through fall), and they sell slower, we still sell out. Our ground lamb and stew meat sells rapidly at $8.50 per pound. We maintain each price to recover our target price per lamb.”
For those selling a greater volume of lamb year–round through direct markets, dealing with a large inventory of specific cuts can be a challenge. “You need to be creative with your marketing,” said Nikki Royer. She and Scott adjust their processing orders to move the whole animal and meet seasonal customer demand. “We put our leg of lamb into kabobs during the summer,” she said. “We also use different seasonings in ground lamb during the summer.”
Whether selling year–round or just in the late summer or fall, lamb marketers at farmers markets say quality sells. “I like to pull several packages out of the freezer to let the customer pick which they want,” said Mac Stone. “A lot of times, they’ll take them all.”
Nikki Royer also said they see customer volume increasing. “We encourage customers to purchase larger portions, like a quarter beef or a whole lamb,” she said. Royer Farm Fresh allows its customers to pay a deposit in spring to reserve a lamb for later in the year.
Transportation and Handling
Product transportation and handling is also critical for selling meat at farmers market. “When we started selling at a farmers market in 2003, we just had a couple of coolers,” said Nikki Royer. “Now we have freezers holding different products mounted on several trailers.”
Mac Stone added that it is important to present the meat professionally. “It’s extremely important that the presentation of the product is clean and simple,” he said. “We use homemade dividers in our coolers to keep cuts separated so we don’t have to be digging around to find certain cuts. The less handling, the better.”
Opportunities: Grass–Fed, Local
Both Mac Stone — whose lambs are grown on certified organic pasture — and Nikki Royer said that it is important to let people know how their meat is produced. “Grass–fed lamb is always desirable to our customers,” said Mac Stone.
Nikki Royer said they have added some Katahdin–Dorper breeding to their 80–ewe Suffolk flock to allow their lamb to be 100 percent grassfed. This was a move dictated by economics as much, if not more, than customer demand. “We traditionally lambed in January; we’re now lambing on pasture in April and May because of higher feed costs,” she said.
Some research suggests that the way lambs (and other animals) are fed is not quite as important to consumers as the location of the farm and the quality of the meat. Results of a 2006 survey of Nevada consumers, published by University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, found consumers were willing to pay as much of a premium for “local and lean” lamb as for “grass–fed/lean” lamb. Meat that can be marketed as both “grass–fed and local,” according to the Nevada study, would receive an even higher price premium from the consumers surveyed.
Not For Everyone
To be sure, selling at farmers markets is not for everyone raising lamb for meat. The Royers put in long market Saturdays, rising early to arrive at the opening of Indianapolis–area Saturday markets some 90 miles from the farm. Other family members staff their Terre Haute market stand, about 20 miles from the farm.
Farmers’ markets require constant interaction with customers, and Nikki Royer said that means the producer receives all customer feedback—good and bad—firsthand. “You definitely have to be willing to interact with customers,” she said.
But raising lamb for meat and selling it directly to farmers market customers could capture premium retail prices and increase farm profitability. For some shepherds (including the Royers) investing time and energy into building that market could result in a new, sustainable income stream by selling lamb direct to the customer at farmers markets.
Do you raise lamb for meat and do you sell it at the farmers market?
Adapted from Choosing Direct Marketing Channels for Agricultural Products by Megan L. Bruch and Matthew D. Ernst (University of Tennessee Extension, 2010).
Originally published in the May/June 2013 issue of sheep! magazine and regularly vetted for accuracy.