Blair farmers pitch lamb use via frozen food line

Wisconsin State Roundup

Published April 1, 1994  | April 1994 issue

In view of a 13 percent decrease in the 1993 U.S. lamb crop from the previous year and dwindling American lamb consumption, a Blair family is doing its part to reverse that trend with a line of consumer-ready products.

Sue and Bob Howard, whose farm is midway between Eau Claire and La Crosse, created ready-to-cook marinated lamb products, called Lambo's. "We're hoping that this will give us some profit, but the big thing is to promote lamb," says Sue Howard, who concocted the recipes and prepares the lamb at a meat locker facility in a nearby town.

The Howards have watched the profits on their 70 or so sheep decline over the years. "The price of wool didn't even cover the cost of this latest shearing," Sue Howard says.

Mark Stevenson, a meat safety consultant with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in Altoona, who helped the Howards get their business off the ground, says he's seen an increase in direct sales of meat and produce in his region. Finding a market niche "puts [the Howards] one step ahead of the game," Stevenson says.

The frozen products—marinated lamb kebabs, teriyaki lamb, fajitas and sir-fry lamb, with recipes included—have been placed with three area grocers, and ads in a local shopper have brought direct sales. "I can't say it's been a money maker, but it has sparked some interest in lamb," Sue Howard says. "Some people were just happy to find a place to buy a whole lamb."

Although the impact of an operation like the Howards' may be small, every little bit helps the producer, says Dean Henderson, professor in the Animal Food Sciences Department at University of Wisconsin—River Falls, who expects the sheep industry to continue its decline. "It gets harder for large sheep producers to make a profit." But he gives the small sheep raisers more of a chance, by finding their niche markets and doing such things as pooling lambs to cut down on shipping costs. Because the Howards' business has low capital input, Henderson says, it has a greater chance of success than would a larger operation.

To meet anticipated year-around demand for Lambo's, the Howards are working to stagger lambing, which traditionally occurs in spring. And down the road, Sue Howard says, maybe a group of area sheep raisers could form a co-op. "Then we could supply a bigger market, but for now, if we could just sell our own ...."

Kathy Cobb