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How Retail Flock Profits Are Made

Product Variety & Reliable Superiority Are The Keys

By Tim King

In addition to hard work, good marketing skills are important if you plan on selling your lamb and wool products directly to the end consumer. Having absolute confidence in the quality of your product makes practicing those marketing skills a lot easier. Dan Wilson (who sells lamb to restaurants and farmers’ markets in the Canby, Oregon area) achieves that confidence by working hand-in-hand with his butcher: Literally.

Work With Butcher & Buyer

Dan and Susie Wilson at their bountiful farmers' market booth
Dan and Susie Wilson at their bountiful farmers’ market booth

“We custom kill about 100 sheep for the ethnic market right here on the farm, so I do a lot of my own butchering,” Dan says. “Because of that, in the last year the butcher at our processing plant has gotten so he trusts me with a knife.”

The butcher, who is co-owner of Mark’s Meats, and Dan cut up the Wilsons’ lambs every Wednesday. Dan wields the knife to cut and trim ribs and a cut from the top of the leg that the Wilsons have developed. But he’s doing something else while he works with his butcher. He’s overseeing the cutting and trimming of all of his lamb carcasses. By overseeing cutting and trimming of each of the nearly 1,300 lambs the Wilsons market each year, Dan assures a consistency that keeps a wide variety of customers coming back for their lamb time after time.

“We work with over 30 restaurants and three farmers’ markets,” Dan says.

Each restaurant has different needs and different schedules so Dan’s sessions with the butcher are different each week.

Make A Strong Effort To Learn What Buyers Want

“Every Monday I spend at least a half a day talking to restaurants,” he says. “They tell me what they need for the week. Last week we cut about 60 packages of leg steaks. This week we only cut 16. But this week I had a huge order for sirloin steak. We don’t see that kind of change every week. Restaurants usually run their menu for a month and then they change it. I do have one restaurant that changes its menu every three weeks. For about six weeks they ran me ragged but now I’m not getting anything. Other restaurants want two of this and three of that consistently every week.”

Regardless of the variety of the cutting orders for the week Dan’s focus is on trim.

“I found early on that if I don’t trim like I do, I have trouble selling my meat,” Dan says. “I probably trim five pounds more off each carcass than most people do.”

The rigorous trimming pays off.

“Our competitors in the farmers’ markets are other farmers like ourselves who take their lambs and have them killed and butchered,” Dan says. “The same butcher cuts them up but we consistently outdo those folks because our stuff is trimmed a little better.”

Secret Weapon: Sampling

Once shepherds are sure of their product’s quality, they can employ their marketing skills to the fullest. Since Dan and Susie Wilson have two primary markets-restaurants and farmers’ markets-they must of necessity employ two somewhat differing marketing strategies. But at the heart of the work with both their retail and restaurant customers is sampling and education. They willingly provide free samples to interested restaurant chefs and farmers’ market customers.

“At the three farmers’ markets we go to we have a small propane burner and we often do kabobs marinated in a commercial teriyaki,” Susie says. “That’s a taste people are very familiar with and enjoy. The kabobs get cut off the shoulder. That’s a tougher cut but when you make it melt in their mouth the customers love it. It makes several hundred dollars a week difference whether we sample or not sample.”

One Product Sells Another: Give Choosy Buyers Plenty Of Choices

Another way Susie keeps the customers intrigued is by spinning wool at the market stand when she has a bit of spare time. The spinning demonstration sends a message to passers-by about who the people in the stand are. Besides, Susie says, spinning has a direct positive impact on the couple’s yarn sales at the farmers’ market.

Part of Dan and Susie's flock. It's important to hammer home the message that real, honest-to-goodness local flocks produced the first-class goods you are offering.
Part of Dan and Susie’s flock. It’s important to hammer home the message that real, honest-to-goodness local flocks produced the first-class goods you are offering.

Along with yarn the Wilsons also sell wool blankets, sheep skins, lanolin based hand cream, and specially concocted dog treats made from sheep livers and hearts.

“We sell pretty much everything but the baaa,” Susie says.

But the lamb sales are the heart of the business. And the Wilsons use the farmers’ markets as a means to boost their restaurant sales.

“At the market we have a big sign that promotes the restaurants where our lamb is,” Dan says. “The sign helps considerably.”

And restaurant sales, in turn, bolster farmers’ market sales.

“Most of the restaurants that buy our lamb advertise our farm name at the restaurant,” Dan says. “That helps us at the farmers’ market. People come to us and say they had our lamb at such and such a restaurant.”

Getting Buyers To Seek You Out

When customers get Wilson’s lamb at a restaurant, enjoy it, and then seek it out at the farmers’ market they can be fairly certain that the product will be uniform. Assuming adequate cooking at home, the lamb from the farmers’ market should be as pleasing as the lamb from the restaurant.

Dan shows off the variety of great products at the Wilsons' market stand.
Dan shows off the variety of great products at the Wilsons’ market stand.

A large part of that consistency comes from Dan’s careful trimming and quality control program. It also comes from the fact that the farmer who supplies the majority of the Wilsons’ lambs raises them the same way they do. Although Dan and Susie finish about 100 lambs from their Border Leicester and Coopworth cross ewes each year they purchase 800 to 900 lambs from a partner and 100 to 200 from neighbors. They know how those lambs are raised, in part, because the Willamette Valley of Oregon, where they and their suppliers farm, has a long grass season. The result is a grass fed and finished lamb.

“We gather the sheep out of the pasture on Monday, sort them out, haul on Tuesday, and they are slaughtered on Wednesday,” Dan says. “They never taste corn.”

Susie gently corrects an enthusiastic Dan by noting the lambs do get a bit of grain in their creep feed.

Sticking With What Works; Dumping What Doesn’t

Enthusiasm is part of what makes the Wilsons’ business work. But enthusiasm in direct marketing has to be blended with the willingness to try something and, if it doesn’t work, try something else. For instance, the Wilsons used to go to more farmers’ markets. They cut back to the three most profitable that fit their schedule.

“The largest one we go to has 120 vendors and the smallest one has 40,” Dan says. “We kept going to the small one because I can do it alone and that keeps our overhead down.”

The first year Susie and Dan went to farmers’ markets, they hadn’t developed their restaurant business yet. After the markets closed they were faced with months of down time.

“We had about 500 customers from the markets that we sent out a nice letter to saying we would be available at all of the farmers’ markets locations every Saturday during the winter,” Dan says. “I must have had at least three people come by. It just didn’t work.”

What has worked, however, is that the Wilsons’ commitment to quality, combined with their hard work, has now got retail customers and chefs seeking them out.

The Wilsons’ price list (left) keeps customers coming back, encourages telephone orders, and tells what makes their products special.

Dan & Susie Wilson keep a first-quality flock of Border Leicester and Coopworth sheep. They have introduced top-rated imported genetics into their own excellent bloodlines with great success. For mild-tasting sheep that are easy keepers and have high birth rates, contact them at: SuDan Farm, 32285 S Kropf Rd., Canby, OR 97013; Phone: (503) 651-LAMB; E-mail: susdan@web-ster.com

The Wilsons' price list keeps customers coming back, encourages telephone orders, and tells what makes their products special.

The Wilsons’ price list keeps customers coming back, encourages telephone orders, and tells what makes their products special.

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