Lamb producers see opportunity, challenge in direct-marketing
Lamb and wool producers from North Dakota and Minnesota met jointly in Fargo, North Dakota, on Dec. 11, 2021. Speakers talked about opportunities and challenges in selling meat direct to consumers.
FARGO, North Dakota — The COVID-19 pandemic has led to some opportunities and avenues for lamb producers to get their lamb meat in front of consumers, but there are widespread concerns about too few local processors and too few workers to meet demand.
Speakers addressed related topics on Dec. 11, 2021, at a Lamb and Wool Producers Joint Convention in Fargo. The event brought in producers rom North Dakota and Minnesota, as well as organizations involving South Dakota and Montana producers.
Ann Crider, a central Illinois producer and regional board member of the American Sheep Industry Association, described ASI new initiatives, including the American Wool Assurance Program, which allows producers to have their wool classified and certified their wool to make it easier to sell. The ASI also is developing the Secure Sheep and Wool Plan, to allow producers to train and to develop programs to comply with U.S. Department of Agriculture. Producers can get training and go online, to help prevent shut-downs if a communicable disease like “hoof-and-mouth” disease is found in their state.
Travis Hoffman, Extension Service sheep specialist for North Dakota and Minnesota, moderated a direct marketing that panel including producer Ron Wolff, Oakes, North Dakota; Nathan Kroh, meat processing regulator for the North Dakota Department of Agriculture; and Jim Ostlie, a livestock specialist with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
Kroh and Ostlie said there are three primary levels of licensing for meat processors. First, is the “custom-exempt” level, which means all of the meat must be returned to the original supplier for personal use only.
Above that are the two main categories of state- and federally-inspected facilities. Those distinctions carry similar requirements, with some difference in training help and inspectors from either state or federal authorities.
Kroh, NDDA’s scientific information coordinator works with meat plants for food safety and sanitation, including permit requirements for selling any proteins. He also is the dairy inspection program coordinator for the state. Kroh half-joked that he’s a “bridge between the meat cop” who points out shortfalls and helping processors do things correctly.
North Dakota has 76 custom exempt plants, nine under state inspection and 11 under federal inspection.
Ostlie, a livestock specialist for the MDA, also is a Suffolk sheep and Red Angus breeder from near Benson, Minnesota. Ostlie said his work is to “sustain the livestock industry in the state of Minnesota” and “encourage it to grow.”
Ostlie keeps track of zoning ordinances and connects farmers with resources to add value, including grants and loans for processing, as well as physical feedlots, and to assist in marketing through the Minnesota Grown program. The program also works with licensing for people expanding meat marketing. During the height of pandemic, the state provided “rapid response grants” for temporary or permanent storage space for their products. Inspection division and economic.
There are differences between states.
In North Dakota it is legal to sell animals directly to meat consumers under a “personal use” exemption. This happened more often during the height of the pandemic when consumers purchased animals directly from producers who had a hard time marketing to plants they typically would sell to.
North Dakota consumers/purchasers sometimes have obtained meat by going to the farm or ranch and killing and processing their own meat. The producer/seller can provide a building and equipment for the killing and processing, but legally cannot provide physical help.
In Minnesota, that kind of marketing is completely illegal, Ostlie said.
Lavonne Beckler, Fergus Falls, Minnesota, produces Suffolks and Southdowns and has been raising sheep for 40 years. She says availability of labor for local processing is becoming tighter and more strained. “It is an issue, it’s huge,” said
The Staples, Minnesota , campus of Central Lakes College , and Ridgewater College in Willmar and Hutchinson, respectively, both are developing “meat cutting certificate” training programs.
The North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, North Dakota, started a meat certificate program in the fall of 2021, in partnership with the North Dakota State University.
Brad Pozarnksy, Bottineau, North Dakota, said he’s running into problems of slaughter plants only doing beef, and not lambs or pigs.
"We need slaughter plants that do lamb and pigs,” he said.
Ostlie said in Minnesota there are many small processors who are reaching retirement age, have no succession plan, and are closing. The work is physical with temperature variations, so is not for everyone.
“It’s similar to 50-cow dairy, not the next generation to take over,” he said, regarding the time commitment.
Wolff said his family has raised registered Suffolk sheep near Oakes, North Dakota, in the southeast part of the state for 40 years. They sell seedstock and maintain 50 to 60 ewes. The family markets meat from 30 to 40 lambs per year. Most customers are repeat buyers they meet through farmers market contacts.
“We have been fortunate enough the last three years that we have (pre-) priced every sheep that has left our place, and that was kind of our goal,” Wolff said. “We have not gone to the sale barn with any of our lambs.”
Wolff said his family uses a federally-inspected plant at Oakes. They sell at the Red River Market, a farmers market in Fargo, and have sold some of their ribs through Fargo restaurants. The meat sales are in “five figures” for lamb meat. He works for a fertilizer cooperative and is in touch with many farmers, some of whom have South African workers who have a preference for lamb meat.
He said there are opportunities for selling through restaurants, especially if lamb feeders “can do it year-round.”