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Published December 06, 2011, 07:54 PM

Sheep and soap

A Grand Forks, ND, family recently entered the sheep business, purchasing 300 sheep and moving them to a ranch near Grand Forks

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Soap and sheep make a good business fit, a Grand Forks, N.D., family hopes.

Brian Dorff, his fiancée, Billie Kellar, and her father, Dale Kellar, purchased what had been the Catherine’s for Lamb sheep operation in Driscoll, N.D., and established their own sheep ranch just west of Grand Forks.

Though the three have little experience with livestock, “Sheep are something we really wanted to try. This seems to be a good time to be getting into it,” Dorff says.

Sheep numbers both regionally and nationally are at record lows, while consumer demand for lamb is growing — a combination that bodes well for sheep producers.

Dorff and the Kellars already have scored a marketing win. Four area Hugo’s supermarkets were expected to begin selling lamb from the Grand Forks ranch about the time this issue of Agweek went to press.

Lamb from the Kellars and Dorff will be sold as pre-packaged frozen products at Hugo’s stores in East Grand Forks, Minn., Thief River Falls, Minn., and Jamestown, N.D., as well as a Hugo’s location in Grand Forks.

“We’re a local company, and we try to do as much business with local companies as we can,” says Scott Van Camp, meat supervisor for Hugo’s.

Demand for lamb isn’t particularly strong, but Hugo’s is optimistic that lamb from the Grand Forks ranch will be popular, he says.

The lamb is produced naturally and source-verified, Van Camp notes.

Catherine’s for Lamb had retail outlets in central and western North Dakota, but none in the eastern part of the state, Biller Kellar says.

“We’re excited to be in Hugo’s,” she says.

Dorff and the Kellars are feeding the sheep the same diet they ate previously, and are using the same meat processor.

“Very little changed has changed, except for who customers write the checks to,” Dorff says.

The Grand Forks family also is keeping the Catherine’s for Lamb name, logo and existing customers.

Billie Soap and Spa and Catherine’s for Lamb are separate businesses and each has its own web site.

Pride of Dakota ties

Four years ago, Dorff and the Kellars launched Billie’s Soap and Spa, a Grand Forks-based business that makes and sells soap, lotions and other products.

But Billie Kellar was interested in sheep as well as soap.

“I’d had a few sheep in 4-H growing up, and I’d always thought we (her family) should get a few sheep,” Kellar says.

The soap business is seasonal, with sales falling off from January through May — “just when sheep usually are lambing. So soap and sheep really seemed to dovetail,” she says

Through their involvement with Pride of Dakota, a state program that promotes products made in North Dakota, Dorff and the Kellars got to know Kate Pfenning of Driscoll, N.D. She owned Catherine’s for Lamb, which produced lamb and sold it through supermarkets and restaurants. Like Dorff and the Kellars, Pfenning was active in Pride of Dakota.

Pfenning auctioned her business this fall because she was moving back to her native New Zealand.

Before the sale, Pfenning mentioned to Dorff and the Kellars that she hoped she could sell it to someone who would keep the business in the area, Dorff says.

“We thought it was a wonderful opportunity for us (to get into the sheep business), but financially, it just wasn’t possible,” he says.

But Billie Kellar had been reading “Enoch’s Fable,” a book written by Enoch Thorsgard, a 94-year-old Northwood, N.D., farmer. In the book, Thorsgard tells of how he has helped other farmers through the years.

Kellar contacted Thorsgard in hopes of learning more about the sheep business.

Thorsgard tells Agweek that, prior to meeting Dorff and the Kellars, he got to know Pfenning and her business while promoting his book through Pride of Dakota.

“I thought it was a good business,” he says.

He was impressed by the enthusiasm of Dorff and the Kellars and thought they might have a future raising sheep and selling lamb.

Further, Thorsgard owns a cattle ranch just west of Grand Forks that was suitable for sheep as well.

“He said, “I think I can help you make this work,’ ” Dorff says.

After that, “Things just fell into place,” Dale Kellar says.

Billie Kellar declines to give details of Thorsgard’s financial involvement in the project, but adds, “Nothing would have been possible without him.”

Dorff and the Kellars all say they believe God made it possible for them to enter the sheep business.

On the Bullseye Ranch

Today, 283 sheep that Dorff and the Kellars purchased from Pfenning live on Bullseye Ranch, Thorsgard’s ranch west of Grand Forks.

Grand Forks is located in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota. Most of the Red River Valley consists of fertile farmland, but the Bullseye Ranch is in an area with alkaline soils that aren’t well suited to crops.

Thorsgard says the ranch once was home to sheep, but has been used for cattle since he bought it 40 years ago.

Dorff and the Kellars have been converting the ranch’s main barn to sheep use. All three will work in both the sheep and soap businesses. Dale Kellar has an off-farm job as well.

Lambing will begin in early April and run the middle of May. The new batch of lambs of lambs will be processed when they reach about 110 pounds, which typically is nine months to a year after they’re born.

People familiar with sheep often describe the animal as “stubborn.” That word fits as well as any, Dorff says.

“They know where they want to go and what they want to eat, and if you have a different opinion, they don’t care,” he says.

Industry rebound

The number of sheep in the region and nation has been declining for years. Many factors, including declining demand for wool, are responsible.

North Dakota sheep numbers reached a record low in North Dakota of 78,000 on Jan. 1, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That number may be too low because it doesn’t take into account the rising number of small sheep operations, says Wyman Scheetz of Center, N.D., president of the North Dakota Lamb and Wool Producers Association.

In 2008, his group launched its Starter Flock program, which seeks to help North Dakota teens start their own flocks. Thirty-one flocks have been started through the program, and Scheetz says he knows of only one of the young producers who has quit the sheep business.

The sheep industry has good reason for long-term optimism, Scheetz and others say.

Increased ethnic demand, reflecting growing numbers of Muslims and Hispanics in the United States, is boosting prices for lamb — a trend that’s not expected to change anytime soon.

“This is an exciting time to be in the sheep business,” Scheetz says.

Learning curve

Apart from Bille Kellar’s experience with 4-H sheep, “This is all new to us,” Dale Kellar says. “But we’re learning as we’re going.”

Pfenning, Thorsgard and others are helping Dorff and the Kellars learn more about sheep.

Exceptionally fine fall weather is making it easier for Dorff and the Kellars to care for, and learn about, their sheep.

“You couldn’t ask for nicer weather than what we’ve had,” Dale Kellar says.

Sheep producers and others in the industry have been helpful and welcoming, he says.

Consumers are positive, too, Dorff says.

“Everyone I meet seems to be interested in buying lamb. They ask, ‘Do you have a price list with you?,’” Dorff says.

Prices for Catherine’s for Lamb products vary, depending on where they’re sold, Dorff says.