Consumer concerns about where to buy American lamb leads Kitzans to direct marketing business
Kitzan Family Farms leg of lamb
courtesy of Kitzan Family Farms
1 bone-in or deboned Kitzan Family Farms leg of lamb
2 Tbsp. Kitzan Family Farms lamb seasoning
1 c. mayonnaise
Mix lamb seasoning and mayonnaise together. Place leg of lamb on foil and cover on all sides of the leg of lamb with the mayonnaise seasoning. Cover tightly with additional foil.
Bake in oven at 350 degrees until the internal temperature is 150 degrees. Uncover to brown and finish cooking until the internal temperature is 160 degrees of a medium-done roast or 170 degrees for a well-done roast.
1 part ground rosemary
4 part dry garlic
2 part thyme
2 part dry onion
1 part pepper
2 part salt
As a member of the American Lamb Board and a sheep producer, Gwen Kitzan does her part to promote American lamb to consumers.
“I really enjoy the aspect of being able to interact with one another during cooking demonstrations, and being able to take part in cooking lamb,” the Nisland, S.D., producer said. “It is something people can take home with them and share with their friends and neighbors.”
However, at these events, she sees a problem with the American lamb business.
“I’ve cooked lamb at the state fair, and the first thing that happens is a lot of people will come up and want to know where they can buy it,” Kitzan told producers at the Nebraska Sheep and Goat Producers annual conference. Many food distribution companies in the U.S. only carry imported lamb because they can get it so much cheaper. It doesn’t taste as good, and the cuts are much smaller, she said.
American lamb is hard to find.
“I wonder why we do all this promotion if our consumers can’t find American lamb to buy. What has happened is it has given the sheep producers a lot of opportunities to direct market lamb,” she said.
Kitzan Family Farms started their own direct marketing business six years ago in the Rapid City, S.D., area.
“It is about 70 miles from where we live. They have an Air Force base, a lot of doctors and lawyers, and an urban base population,” Kitzan said.
The direct marketing process has been “learn as you go” for Kitzan.
“There are a lot of things we’ve had to learn the hard way,” she said. “The first year, I set a goal to make $300 a day. We just went to a farmers market on Saturdays, and I lost money that first summer.”
But she didn’t let it get her down. The first year, she sold leg of lamb, chops, shoulder roasts, round and shanks. “Then, all of a sudden, we had people coming up asking if we had any lamb chislic,” she said. Lamb chislic is red cubed meat that is deep fried, salted, and served with beer. It is a dish that originated in eastern South Dakota as a bar food. People come from all over the country to eastern South Dakota to try it, she said.
Kitzan added chislic and cubed stew meat to her direct marketing inventory, but had to get more conscientious about package size to be price sensitive. “The cubed stew meat and chislic come in 1 pound packages because that is what the housewife wants,” she said.
She also learned that when gentlemen come up and want a package of lamb chops, Kitzan goes through the freezer to find the biggest packages she has. “They don’t care about the price, they just want a big package of chops. They just want to buy lamb to put on the grill. The women are more price conscious,” she said.
PROTECT YOUR OPERATION
All of the meat the family sells through direct marketing is marketed under Kitzan Family Farms, which is a separate LLC entity from Kitzan Sheep and JHK Sheep. “When you are selling meat to the public, you need to protect your operation at home. All of our meat is USDA inspected at the plant. It is just another level of protection. You have to protect yourself at all times. Make sure your product is kept fresh and frozen, and you are only selling meat from healthy animals. If you decide to go to a farmers market, make sure it is a reputable one. If they don’t ask to see your insurance policy, you don’t want to be there because if someone gets hurt or someone sells some bad food, even if it is a pie or cake, it could come back to you,” she cautioned producers.
Since that first year and a few minor tweaks, business has really grown for Kitzan. “We started adding ribs, and now we can’t keep enough on hand. The Traeger grill is the best thing that ever happened to us,” she said.
As customers request new parts of the lamb, Kitzan does her best to accommodate them. “We had someone ask if we had lamb breast. They were talking about the brisket or lamb roll. We started offering it for $5 each, and now it is one of our favorite cuts,” she said. “It is very rich and satisfying. You can bake it on cast iron on a bed of onions. It is incredible with just salt and pepper.”
“We are starting to make more money now because we don’t let anything go to waste,” she said. Lamb neck is cooked in an instapot and used for fajitas, stroganoff and stews. Customers even request liver, kidneys and lamb fries.
The Kitzans keep all the lamb pelts, which are salted and put into a drying room. Then they are sent off to be tanned. “We get them back, and sell them like crazy. We have all sorts of pictures showing people what they can be used for. It really helps us market them,” she said.
They also make items like flowers and dryer balls from the wool.
The direct marketing venture has added a lot of value to the family’s farming operation. Kitzan said it has allowed her son and daughter-in-law to come back to the farm and raise their family there. It has given them cash flow, and allowed her daughter-in-law to stay at home and raise the next generation.
“When I started the direct marketing business, I told my husband I’m not working for free anymore. When you can control your own breeding program and your own genetics, you will be money ahead. The moment you start doing that, you will be the best critic of your own breeding program because it comes down to one thing — economics. You evaluate what’s making you money and what’s not making you money. This is a business that is all about making money,” she said. ❖
— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.