Tom and Mary Cory operate a small, diversified grain and livestock farm in Central Iowa. Approximately 290 acres of row crops are farmed with an additional 25 acres of hay and 75 acres of rented pasture for the 225 ewes. Since agricultural land rents for such a high premium, we have decided that niche marketing would be best for our operation. Tom teaches agriculture at an urban high school in Des Moines. Mary does the primary crop work with her father. Both Tom and Mary handle the sheep operation from birth to marketing of retail products. The Cory’s have 2 boys, Spencer, 5 and Gavin, 4 with another child due in April 2002.
Before we received the grant, we considered many sustainable methods of sheep raising and marketing. The grant enhanced and even brought to the forefront our desire to:
1) Raise lambs free of added hormones
2) Reduce pesticides used with livestock use sheep manure as compost for our chemical free garden
3) Utilize a discarded by product of sheep processing in local locker plants—pelts
Most of these projects began 1-3 years ago. Our interest in sustainable methods is growing each year as we look at ways to reduce inputs into the operation.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
One major goal was to develop a profitable and viable alternative to sheep marketing. Mary and I set a goal to market 250 leathers as a value added end product directly to the consumer. A second goal was to enhance the local locker and leather processors’ income and develop a working relationship that would be beneficial to all parties.
Steps in our leather project included:
1) Increasing our ewe base – 260 ewes with some out of season lambing
2) Sell more retail, frozen lamb to local restaurants and farmer’s market customers
3) Process at least 200 leathers for retail products
4) Set up a web page and install a shopping cart for all products made out of leather
5) Hire Judy McCart to sew leather sheep products
6) Contract with Sharon’s Leathers to sew vests and purses
7) Sell most of the leather inventory by attending some shows or rallies
The result of this phase was that steps 1 thru 6 were started and partially completed. The result of step 7 was that Iowa is not our market and that having a web page does not guarantee sales. We were at the top of most search engine sites, but we didn’t advertise, thus we experienced zero sales in seven months.
Other people involved in the leather project were:
– Larry Davenport – Mingo Locker – lamb processing and new product development
– Tom Eddy – Specialty Leathers of Boone – working on the sheep leather in 14 different colors
– Boone Tanning – tanning pelts
– Judy McCart – leather sewer from Newton
– Sharon’s Leathers – leather sewer from Albion
– Home and Garden Show – Des Moines, Iowa Department of Agriculture showcasing our leathers in the All Iowa Store
– Dr. Dan Morrical – ISU Sheep Specialist working on feed rations
– Dr. Sue Lee Robb – ISU Vet Sheep Specialist developing a sheep health protocol
– Iowa Farm Bureau and ISU Education Specialist, Cary Trexler – “Ag in the Classroom Tours”
Results from this project are constantly evolving. We were able to reduce feed expenses for our flock. Sales of lambs as a retail product has grown from 5 head in 1997 to more than 350 head in 2001. The price received for our lamb the past three years has been as steady as a restaurant menu price. When lamb prices dipped to the upper $30’s this past summer, Cory’s Country Lamb was still receiving $.90/lb on the average. The down side is that the leathers have not returned the extra $.25/lb revenue as previously hoped for.
We have learned that you must promote your value added product and we realize that when you cut out another middleman, you then pick up all of their labor and financial responsibility. Next on the agenda is to find a sewer that will do the work at entry level wages instead of $20/hr. currently, all finished leather items retail price contains 84% labor costs. We can’t compete at this level.
Sheep producers being an independent sort have been noticing our work. The big question in the future is – would they want to invest in this type of value added business? Our business has grown and we would recommend others to consider niche marketing, but maybe not as big to being with.
Mary and I spent more than $30,000 on leathers and wool marketing products and web design. We would recommend all interested parties to take a business class such as the NexLevel class and develop a business plan before diving into a business venture.
Methods of telling our story in the past few years include:
1) 2 Iowa Public TV stories on our sheep operation
2) 2 additional spot appearances by Mary about our operation on IPTV
3) 2 Des Moines Register newspaper articles
4) 3 Iowa Farmer Today articles about our operation
5) 1 article in “American Small Farm” magazine
6) 4 groups from ISU Teachers’ Academy class toured our operation
7) 1 group discussion at Midwest Small Farm Conference, Springfield, IL
8) 1 Value Added Discussion at conference in Des Moines
9) 11 days of Iowa State Fair booth about our leathers
10) Home and Garden Show – show casing our leathers