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People Learn, Farmers Earn!

Educating Buyers At Rising Meadow Farm

By Tim King

If you are going to sell lamb meat you have a responsibility to teach people how to cook with it.

At least that’s the contention of Ann Fay, of Rising Meadow Farm near Liberty, North Carolina.

Selling Lamb In Pork Country: Education Is The Key

Townsfolk enjoy learning about where the food and fabric come from.
Townsfolk enjoy learning about where the food and fabric come from.

Seeing it shorn by hand makes a fleece that much more special.
Seeing it shorn by hand makes a fleece that much more special.

“We’re in the south where pork is king and people are used to cooking pork until it’s dead,” Ann said. “If you cook lamb like that you can forget it.”

So Ann, and her husband Ron, have taken it upon themselves to educate the public about how to prepare simple but elegant dishes with lamb. They do so at the farmers market they go to each Saturday. They also educate customers at their annual on-farm Fall Festival. Teaching people is a joy in itself for Ann. But it doesn’t hurt that there is a continuum that goes from education to marketing to improved sales.

“People buy lamb from us and they come back because they’ve learned how to cook lamb and they really like it,” Ann said. “A lot of people have said they never cooked lamb because they didn’t know how. Showing them how has made a tremendous difference for us.”

A lot of farmers involved in direct marketing of their products to customers have some experience with attempting to educate their customers. Ann and Ron have taken their “responsibility” to a level that transcends the efforts of most, however.

“It might be because I used to be a teacher,” Ann said.

In addition to their work at the farmers market the Fays hold three educational events on their farm every year. First there are the annual Shearing Day festivals.

Shearing Days: “Sharing” Pays

The Fays raise—and shear—registered white Corriedales, and colored Corriedales (with the moorit gene) in shades of brown from champagne to dark chocolate. They also raise Dorset crosses whose wool is used for blankets. There is also a small flock of Navajo-Churro at Rising Meadow.

“At Shearing Day we don’t have vendors but more and more people are coming,” Ann said. “It’s not as many as the Fall Festival but the people who come want to see sheep.

Learning about skirting involves visitors in the simple goodness of wool.
Learning about skirting involves visitors in the simple goodness of wool.

Lots of fresh-shorn fleece sells on the spot.
Lots of fresh-shorn fleece sells on the spot.

“This last year we sheared just over 150 sheep. Kevin Ford shears all the wool sheep and the big rams. He stays with us and by the end of Saturday he’s sheared all of those wool sheep and all of those fleeces are available for people to see. We sell more than half of the fleeces on Shearing Day. People love to buy them right off the sheep. The ones that come out and go on the skirting table are gone right away.”

The Fays use Shearing Day as opportunity to educate customers as well as to sell fleeces, lamb, and all of their products. As in all of their efforts Ann says the profit motive is not necessarily front and center.

“If your motivation is entirely to make money, I think people can see through that,” Ann said. “It’s not that we don’t want to sell our things and make money but it’s kind of like farming: You don’t go into farming just because you want to make money. You go into it because there is some underlying love that you have of the earth or planting or animals. In these events there needs to be a little extra motivation to share what you know.”

“I want people to understand how wonderful these natural products are. Whether it’s working with our yarn, buying a blanket or sheepskin, or buying lamb meat, I want them to see that these products coming from the farm are absolutely wonderful. When they learn that, people become interested and come to the farm and see how they are raised. We have to set a level of quality where people see it and recognize that it is different from the mass-produced and mass-marketed goods. People have gotten so far away from farms and farmers that they forget about that. I believe it’s our responsibility to show it to them.”

After the Shearing Day comes the spring “Open Farm” where visitors are introduced to the new crop of lambs. Finally, in early October, comes the Fall Festival. It is the most ambitious of the festivals.

Fall Festival At Rising Meadow, Where Everyone’s A Winner

“I’ve got 25 vendors coming this year,” Ann said. It was the eighth year of the Fall Festival but the Fays still experiment with the format. It was the first year that neither vendors nor festival-goers would be charged a fee.

Farm events provide a great time for kids.
Farm events provide a great time for kids.

People love to learn new things, such as crafts like needle felting.
People love to learn new things, such as crafts like needle felting.

Big farm lunches, featuring tasty lamb, are big learning experiences, too.
Big farm lunches, featuring tasty lamb, are big learning experiences, too.

Visitors buy yarn and order locker lambs at the farm's store.
Visitors buy yarn and order locker lambs at the farm’s store.

“Up until the last year, we had rented two great big tents,” Ann said. “One was for demonstrations and vendors and the other for music. We also paid for a sound system and music. That last year we lost money on it, so the next year I said we weren’t going to do anything that we have a major outlay of money for. I didn’t have any big tents and I asked for volunteer musicians. A few people volunteered to come to play.”

Ann asked vendors for a voluntary contribution to cover the costs of portable toilets, brochures, and other miscellaneous expenses. Donations ought to cover the costs.

“Every year the vendors have said they’ve done beautifully,” Ann said. “It’s just a one-day event. Some of the vendors have gone to the Fiber Festival at Montpelier, Virginia, which is a two-day event. Other vendors go to other two day events but most of them say they do better here in one day because you don’t have to stay overnight and you don’t have those associated costs.”

The Fall Festival is fiber focused and the vendors (like the Fays) are equally interested in education and sales.

“There are a lot of educational demonstrations such as spinning and felting and knitting,” Ann said. “We serve lunch for about two hours and then we do samples and cooking demonstrations.”

The lunch itself provides educational opportunities. Lunch guests learn about a new way to cook lamb.

“We’re serving lamb kefta,” Ann said. “It’s a Middle Eastern dish with ground lamb mixed with bread crumbs, parsley, onions, allspice, salt and pepper, and garlic. That is formed into kind of long burgers, which are served in half a pita with homemade sauce and chopped tomatoes fresh from the garden.”

For all their work, the Fays make little money from serving lunch. They make more from their farm store, which sells lamb, fleeces, roving, yarn, sheepskins, and other related products. Although attendance has hovered around 800 people in the past, Ann hopes that by not charging admission, attendance will even be better.

People find out about the Fall Festival through word of mouth. They also learn about it through the Fay’s mailing and e-mail lists that they’ve built up over the years through contacts at the farmers market and elsewhere.

“We have a mailing list of about 700 people,” Ann said.

When festival-goers arrive, they are assisted with their vehicle parking. Ann insists that there be parking lot attendants to assure orderly, safe, and efficient parking.

“We have two pasture areas that can be used for parking,” Ann said. “Before my grandson went off to college he would get a couple of his friends and they loved to manage the parking. We gave them lunch.”

Toilet facilities are also necessary. The Fays rent portable toilets. Portable toilet vendors can help estimate how many toilets you will need if you want to hold your own on-farm festival or event. But crowd estimating is a guessing game. Too many toilets are better than not enough.

Ann also suggests shepherds thinking about organizing their own festival investigate their local and state regulations and talk to their farm liability insurance carrier.

“Everybody’s situation will be different,” she said.

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