NEWARK, Ohio – The time is ripe for lamb and wool producers to start marketing their product directly to customers, industry leaders told a convention of Ohio sheep farmers Dec. 10.
In bypassing the sale barn, farmers can not only reap immediate extra profits, but also take advantage of Ohio’s suburbanization trend to build a local customer base and expand future sales, speakers told about 200 people attending the annual Buckeye Shepherd’s Symposium.
Marketing emphasis. That means producers will have to become part-entrepreneur, said keynote speaker Eric Barrett, an ag educator with OSU Extension in Washington County.
“We’re so used to being farmers. We’re not used to being marketers,” he told his audience in The Reese Center auditorium on the OSU Newark campus.
“Most of you have these (marketing skills),” he said. “You just have to learn to use them.”
Cultivate loyalty. Marketing means connecting with customers, finding out what they want and cultivating loyalty by developing your own brand name, said Barrett, who contrasted that with simply selling, or getting rid of what you have on hand.
Industry surveys show people have recently become far more interested in buying locally grown products and will pay higher prices for them, especially in cases where they might be able to know the farmer by name or in person, Barrett and other speakers said.
That trend translates into tremendous opportunities to sell lamb to local restaurants, at farmers’ markets, and even from on-the-farm shops or stands hosted by the producer and his family.
Willing to pay. When a consultant told Franklin, Ind., lamb producer Stanley Poe he could get between $9 and $10 a pound for his leftover stew cuts at the local farmers’ market, Poe thought the price was crazy.
“I thought, ‘Nobody’s going to pay that.’ But I went ahead, and we sold out the first two weekends,” he said.
Ohio currently has more slots at farmers’ markets than it has farmers willing to sell there, Barrett said, and consumer demand for “locally grown” has now surpassed that for organic produce, according to OSU Extension research.
Chef connection. Poe had learned the entrepreneurial alternative several years ago when lamb was going for 70 cents a pound at the local sale barn.
An upscale restaurant had just opened in town and wanted to serve nothing but locally grown food. After a successful arrangement with them for his premium cuts, he found other restaurants to buy chops, loin, rack and shanks, until he was selling to eight restaurants.
He could have gotten higher prices at the farmers’ market in each case, he said, but he couldn’t spare the extra time commitment the farmers’ market demanded.
Don’t ‘settle.’ “As farmers, we have the mindset and the tendency to take whatever we get offered,” Poe said, attributing the habit to years of conditioning from the sale barn.
“But people are willing to pay premium prices for farm fresh. Don’t be afraid to price your product at the price it’s worth.”
The symposium is hosted by the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association, based in Columbus.
On a roll. The number of sheep in Ohio last year increased for the first time since 1990, said Roger A. High, the association executive director.
“There aren’t many industries (in agriculture) that are as profitable now as the sheep industry,” High said.
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Producers want to protect flocks from vultures
By Lyle Wilson
NEWARK, Ohio – Jim and Patty Schwarz of Georgetown, Ohio, remember it as the summer they kept their herd of 75 ewes in the barn, day and night.
All their cats had already vanished. Then in August, their Border Collie went missing. They never found the dog’s body, but have no doubt the hungry black-headed vultures that had already taken nearly 40 of their lambs that year were the culprits.
“It hurt us big time,” Patty Schwarz said. “We lost thousands of dollars to those buzzards. They’re horrible birds.”
Protected species. The Ohio Sheep Improvement Association agrees. At its annual meeting Dec. 10, members adopted a resolution to work with state agencies to control the predator. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act prevents people from killing the black vultures.
Unofficially, the meeting showed limited sympathy for the federal regulation.
“Shoot, shovel and shut up,” one member called out, drawing general murmurs of approval, after the association’s legislative officer, Nancy Cessna, recounted the vulture’s protected status.
The Schwarz family finally took their complaint to Columbus, where state Department of Natural Resources officials helped them obtain a federal permit to shoot at the birds.
Their instructions were to shoot not to kill, but to scare them away. That took care of the problem, Jim Schwarz said.
More losses. Bob Hendershot of Circleville, a USDA state grassland conservation specialist, lost about 30 lambs to the vultures one year before resolving the predicament with a Great Pyrenees guard dog.
“He’s a great dog. He won’t let them get near the ground,” said Hendershot, who remembers counting 30 of the vultures at a time roosting near his barn.
Gory details. The farmers said they could identify the vultures’ kills because the manner was especially gruesome: The birds would peck through the soft tissue of an orifice, usually the eyes first, to extract and eat the lambs’ insides.
The Schwarzes described the birds as closely resembling the common, nonpredatory red-headed vultures, except for the color of the head and white marking under the wings.
Moving in. Originally a migratory bird, the Black Headed Vulture used to move throughout the central southern states and migrate throughout Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia before starting to invade Ohio from the south, Guy Flora of the American Sheep Industry told the OSIA meeting.
“Problem is, they don’t migrate anymore. They sit in southern Ohio 365 days a year,” Flora said.
Hendershot said local wildlife monitoring has estimated the vulture flocks may be moving north at a rate of approximately 200 miles a year.