Building a High Value Market for the Whole Lamb

Final Report for FNC01-373

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2001: $8,310.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $8,710.00
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


This was a project designed to increase sales of “the whole lamb”. Prior to receiving the grant four sheep raisers had worked together in an attempt to market lambs through high end grocery and meat markets within a forty mile radius of our farms. Our experience in this effort was educational for us but resulted in no sales at all. Several stores agreed to sell primal cuts from our lamb at prices that were acceptable to us. The problem was the rest of the lamb. One of the stores agreed to work with us to develop products that they would sell from other parts of the lamb, but just as we were ready to begin delivery they changed meat managers and the new man would not carry through on the agreement.

The four farms in this project, containing about 1240 acres, are all on quite fertile but rolling to hilly land, good land on which to expand our sheep operations. In addition to the expected boost in farm income from direct sales we wanted to increase grass cover and shift to a more sustainable cropping system. We had all used minimum-till practices whenever possible for several years, but believed grass legume based farming would lead to even less tillage and better soil husbandry.

With that background we decided that we needed to develop products and a market for the cuts of lamb that are harder to sell. The goal, of course, was to increase our flock’s size and profitability by selling to good local markets. One of our members was Kenneth McClure who had just retired as the head of the sheep department at Ohio State University’s Agricultural Research and Development Center. Ken was an expert in sheep nutrition and had done a good bit of work on lamb taste and utilization of the whole lamb. He arranged for us to work with several experts and the meat lab at Ohio State. We were perfectly positioned to undertake market development for the sale of whole lamb and thus wrote the grant application that resulted in our receipt of this grant.

Unfortunately Ken died before we could get underway with the intended course of action. His death meant that we had lost some of the essential contacts and expertise that the plan had depended on, and the three families left in the grant felt we needed to make a change in how we were to carry out our project. We asked for and received permission to change the focus of the grant from the increased sale of our lambs through market and product development to a focus on broadening the whole lamb market in the area in general. As a result we would share the improved market with all lamb growers. We believe we were successful in this effort, but it was harder to measure than had we focused only on sales from our own flocks.

The project we carried out had two parts. The first, Lamb, the Tastiest Meal, was a focus on increasing the sale of the whole lamb through local restaurants and meat markets. The second, Let’s Cook Lamb Recipe and Cooking Contest, was an attempt to familiarize new chefs with how to prepare the whole lamb through a statewide contest for schools with a culinary arts program.

Lamb, the Tastiest Meal: our goal was to increase sales of lamb locally by encouraging restaurants to feature lamb on the menu for the entire month of April 2003. we knew that only two restaurants in the local area served lamb, and then only infrequently. We visited each restaurant early in the morning to talk with the chef or head cook before they became too embroiled with the day’s food preparation. What we offered them was help to develop recipes, a discount on lamb for the month if purchased through a local supplier selling only our lamb, a cooking school taught by the best lamb chefs in the area, and free promotion of these restaurants in several local papers. We hoped that four or five restaurants would join us in this promotion. We actually got the top seven restaurants, plus a very popular restaurant that served mainly pizza, and the dietary department of the community hospital.

Some of these chefs were not comfortable with their own expertise with lamb and some wanted recipes and ideas for using shoulders or beasts. We were pushing the whole lamb idea pretty hard. To meet this need we scheduled a half day cooking and lamb cutting demonstration at the local Career Center School. We invited all restaurant cooks, home agents from the Extension Offices of several counties, the food editor of the local paper, the home economist at the areas largest grocery store chain, and any number of community people who could further our promotion. Special attention was given to involving the students in the culinary arts program at the Career Center.

We were fortunate to obtain two highly esteemed chefs from Cleveland, Chef Parker Bosley, owner of one of the most prestigious gourmet restaurants in Cleveland and his head Chef Andy Strizak. To encourage innovative cutting for full utilization of the whole lamb we obtained the services of Bill Blake. Besides being the most entertaining and knowledgeable meat cutter any of us had ever seen, Blake has held many positions in the national lamb scene including chair of the American Lamb Association’s lamb promotion board.

We had asked prospective participants about the best day to hold the cooking school, and there didn’t seem to be a preference. We scheduled it on Friday morning and too late some chefs said they couldn’t come because that was too close to the busy weekend. We had a group of about thirty people in all, but several of the targeted chefs did not attend. In retrospect it would have been much better to hold the cooking school on Monday or Tuesday.

We had tried to get meat cutters from all over the area to attend but only one did. After the paper came out with a nice picture and write up of the session several meat cutters contacted me to express their regrets for not attending. In retrospect I wish I had started earlier and paid much more attention to the benefits of getting the meat cutters to attend. Lamb is harder to cut than beef and if we want to promote lamb the meat cutters must be comfortable with lamb.

In spite of these several changes that we would make if we were to do it again we all felt the cooking school was a big success. The quality of the presentations was excellent, and we felt that both the knowledge of lamb preparation and the publicity that the presentation gave us was very much worthwhile. The farm editor of the local paper attended the cooking school and wrote up a very nice story about it that ran on the front page of the Agriculture section several days later.

The promotion went ahead in April with eight top restaurants offering lamb specialties all month, although several had lamb only on weekends. Quantifying the increase in sales was a bit difficult as several restaurants preferred to order heir lamb through their regular restaurant suppliers and they could only tell us that they used “much more” lamb than usual but couldn’t give us a hard figure. We were able to estimate that overall the restaurants used about six whole lambs and two more were sold at the featured local meat market. The numbers were not large, however this represented about a three fold increase in lamb consumption during the month. All restaurants expressed satisfaction with the promotion and say they plan to continue offering lamb.

Publicity for this promotion was partly from paid advertisements and partly from several publicized activities featuring lamb species and one free “lamb fest” meal open to senior citizens.

The lamb-fest was planned and hosted by the Wooster Community Hospital as part of a Senior Partners program promoting nutrition and wellness. Although we had provided expenses in our grant request for a lamb-fest the hospital paid the entire bill. The hospital dietician selected four lamb recipes consistent with the Mediterranean theme of the evening and each of the 312 participants were able to sample all dishes. This event was a smashing success as the food was excellent and many people who said they had never tasted lamb were surprised at how good it was. They must have liked lamb for the hospital prepared almost 200 pounds of it! I circulated at this event and passed out recipes and gave information about where lamb could be purchased.

Several other promotional activities included having the hospital dietician submit an article about the health benefits of lamb along with her recipes to the local paper. The paper ran an article about the president of the Ohio Heartland Sheep Improvement Association, and featured his lamb roast as the recipe of the week. The paper’s food editor made a point of featuring additional lamb recipes on her own during the month.

The largest grocery chain in the area, Buehler’s Food Markets, is also the main outlet for lamb. Fred Myers, one of the farmers in this grant project, began selling eight lambs a week to Buehler’s during, but not necessarily as a result of, his participation in this project. Buehler’s did, however, sponsor a lamb tasting booth in their largest store as part of our project. The lamb section of the meat case was nearby and we were pleasantly surprised at the number of people who went over and picked out lamb packages after tasting our lamb. The other surprise was the number of people who shied away and made comments similar to, “Oh, I would never eat lamb!” Clearly the culture has changed from the 1920’s and before when few ate beef in Ohio and lamb (or mutton) was on every table.

Lets Cook Lamb, Recipe and Cooking Contest:
This was a whole lamb recipe and cooking contest open to all high school level culinary arts students in the state of Ohio. Most culinary arts programs in Ohio are offered at regional career centers where serious culinary arts students attend from area high schools with the intent of becoming chefs in sit-down restaurants. We decided to offer the contest to this group of students because of the advice we received from practicing chefs that, “if you want restaurants to feature fresh lamb on their menus you must make their chefs feel comfortable with preparing lamb.” The feedback we got throughout both projects of this grant reinforced this idea so strongly that I would recommend much support be given to future grants focused on training both meat cutters and chefs to do a better job with lamb.

We did a successful cooking contest with the final cook off on December 6, 2003, however, others might learn from what we went through trying to arrange the cook off for that contest. Here is a brief history of that frustrating affair.

Our initial focus with the whole lamb cooking contest was to have the final cook off at the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association annual Shepherds Symposium. This is a two day affair in Columbus that is a big event, the culmination of the state organization’s year. The Executive Director of that organization agreed to the idea and also agreed that it should become an annual event with funding which he hoped to arrange after our SARE grant money got it started the first year. I was to make all arrangements with the schools for the actual contest and he would take care of the physical arrangements at the site of the Symposium for the cook off.

I proceeded to arrange with Mr. Robert Bercaw, the chairman of the Culinary Arts department of the Wayne County Schools Career Center, to run the contest in the fall of 2002. Mr. Bercaw was very cooperative and proceeded to set up the details and was ready to send out the contest announcement throughout the state pending the final arrangement for the cook off. The arrangements at the state level then became a series of promises but no action. I even traveled to Columbus, a 200 mile round trip, to try to move things along. The result was excuses and promises. We had to call the effort off for the fall of 2002 because the promised arrangements were not in place in time. The word from Columbus was that they had almost completed the cook off details and that there was no doubt that they would have everything ready for November 2003. It would be inappropriate to go into all the details, but by September of 2003 it was obvious that the arrangements could not be made. We contracted the Executive Director of the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association in early September 2003 and informed him that time had run out after a year and a half, and that we could not sponsor a cooking contest with them.

We immediately contacted the Ohio Wine Council and they enthusiastically endorsed the idea of being our hosts and sponsoring not only a cook off but also showcasing the student chefs and their dishes at four winery tours around the state. They also accepted the idea that this could become an annual event and they might pick up the expense in the future. As things turned out, however, it was not too late to make arrangements before our grant expired, so we thanked the Ohio Wine Council and left with the possibility of holding the cooking contest with them next year if they can fund it. This turned out to be a better contact for promoting lamb than even our own state lamb organization. Here is a good lesson for anyone looking for a way to promote lamb. Don’t overlook alternative sources of help.

We did end up with a very successful whole lamb cooking contest. After all the frustrations we went back to Mr. Burcaw at the Wayne County Schools Career Center in late September 2003 and asked him to proceed with the contest with the final cook off to be held at his facility. He readily agreed and within a few days had sent out the contest announcements and rules statewide.

The initial screening of cooking teams consisted of judging original lamb recipes that they developed and submitted. Nine recipes were chosen and invitations sent to those teams to compete in a final cook off on December 6, 2003 at the very nice Wayne County Schools Career Center Culinary Arts facility.

During the night prior to the cook off a severe snowstorm blanketed the roads of the state with a dangerous layer of snow and ice. Because the contest was scheduled for early morning three out state schools cancelled for safety considerations. Each of the remaining six teams of future chefs prepared four servings of their lamb recipes for the judges and numerous other attendees. All supplies were furnished at the site, paid for by the grant. The results were six sets of creative lamb dishes that disappeared rapidly after the judges had their portions.

The prize money started at $200 for first place and dropped by $25 for each of the four lower placements. Winning teams’ schools received a like amount as an added stimulant. Since the weather had reduced participation, it turned out that all teams but one received prizes. I made an arbitrary decision to give an unannounced “Honorable Mention” prize of $50 to the last team. I hope their enthusiastic gratitude will translate to a lifetime of cooking lamb!

Although the prize money was much appreciated by all recipients, the teachers of the teams told me that contests like this are very valuable to them and that we could reduce the amount of prizes without substantially reducing motivation to participate. I think we would have gotten the same results with half the prize money.

Final Thoughts:
We were very disappointed that we could not carry out the original direct marketing effort that we had developed with Ken McClure. We were equally pleased that SARE granted us permission to continue the goal of marketing the whole lamb while changing the means of achieving that goal. We believe that the project did have a beneficial result, that both parts of the effort were very successful, and that the consumption of lamb in the local area will continue at a higher level because of our efforts. The central Ohio sheep group, Ohio Heartland Sheep Improvement Association, recognized the value of this project by awarding it their 2003 Meritorious Service Award. We have proposed to that group that they carry on some of our work by sponsoring a cooking school every two years. We will also work with the Ohio Wine Council to encourage them to pick up an annual whole lamb cooking contest in cooperation with the states culinary arts programs.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.