All 50 states in the U.S.A. are the market for lamb meat produced at Sandstone Ridge Farm in southwestern Wisconsin. James and Lisa Danielson Twomey raise Tunis and Katahdin sheep at Sandstone Ridge Farm and market the frozen lamb cuts exclusively on the worldwide web. They also sell breeding stock and sheep pelts.
James is a book binder and repairs family bibles as a business. He says that work requires that he see the nation as the market so it was not surprising that he and Lisa, who is an attorney, reached a similar conclusion about their lamb. Prior to their entry into the lamb business five years ago the two were neither shepherd nor webmaster.
“The website was my son’s idea,” James said. “We probably would have done it the old Neanderthal way by buying yellow page ads and sending out letters but my son William is a computer science major and was taking a class in web design. He did a great job on the site. We gave him the pictures and he did the programming and design.”
As has happened before to many others, the younger generation took Lisa and James deeper into the virtual world of the wide web. However, it was just plain luck that brought them to the world of Tunis sheep, James says.
They wanted livestock on their hobby farm so they began with goats. Due to a number of reasons the goats didn’t work out. So they continued their search for a suitable four-legged creature to introduce to their farm.
“We didn’t expect that our labor would be paid for but we wanted animals that would be able to pay for their own expenses,” he said. “A friend of ours in western Wisconsin said that when he was a kid they had sheep to supplement their dairy income. He said you could count on them to not only pay their own way but to pay part of the property taxes. Then we came across a man who had a flock of Tunis available. To be honest, we lucked out. If we had started with hair sheep or any other of those skittish things we wouldn’t have gone into sheep at all. This guy had bought a flock for his wife because she wanted to do wool but Tunis wool is mediocre. So they went to another breed for wool and we bought their flock of registered Tunis. They were beautiful animals.”
James says they lucked out because they accidentally obtained a mild mannered, friendly, and easy to handle breed. Tunis are the perfect breed for beginners, it appears.
“We didn’t know how lucky we’d been until we started handling other breeds for friends or by adopting’ one,” he said. “The Tunis are so friendly. They come up for a scratch and they are like puppy dogs. They are calm, laid back, and easy to handle.” Comparatively speaking, Katahdins are much more difficult to handle, according to James. “You can get within three feet of any Tunis sheep,” he claims.
Lisa and James at the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival in Jefferson, Wisconsin. They were the first ever to bring Tunis sheep to the event.
Once Lisa and James had their new flock they put them out on pasture. They didn’t pay much attention to the fact that there was a ram in with the ewes. But once again luck favored them.
“We didn’t have a plan but we went into lambing season in February and everything went well,” James said. “Then the lambs started to grow and we realized we had to learn about harvesting them. You can’t pay for the taxes and hay with Tunis wool.”
“So we found a butcher and we learned about the difference between USDA and State inspected plants,” he said. “We started out with state licensing but discovered it limited us to Wisconsin. Wisconsin is not a big lamb consumer so we quickly found two USDA butchers. One is close to our farm and one is close to Kenosha where our other business is. That allowed us to always be going toward the butcher. Once we were taking our sheep to the USDA inspected plant we could see the whole country as our market.”
The heart of that national market turns out to be people whose families have their roots in the Mediterranean regions of Europe and Africa.
“Most of our customers have been eating lamb their whole life,” James said. “These are people whose ancestry comes from the Middle East, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and northern Africa. That’s where the Tunis originated and many of our customers know the animal because it actually lives there.”
These new customers began asking questions that James and Lisa were not prepared to answer.
“When we started the website people called with questions we had not thought of,” James said. “They asked things like How many pounds is your leg of lamb?’ Is your shoulder roast bone in or bone out?’ How many bones are in your rack?’ and How thick are your lamb chops?’
“We were absolutely clueless. The first thing we did was start to eat our own meat so we would be able to answer some of these questions.”
Lisa also got permission from sheep! to use the diagram that is in the magazine regularly. They put the chart on their website.
“That was an important tool for us to learn what experienced people expect the lamb cuts to look like and where they come from,” James said. “It helped us understand why a shoulder chop needs to be cooked longer and slower than a loin chop. It also helped us and the customers we have gotten who are new to lamb. It’s an excellent educational tool and helps the appreciation of lamb.”
Calm-natured Tunis sheep have mild flavored meat and can breed out of season.
Winning Internet Buyers
Lisa and James were more methodical about marketing and pricing than they were about some of their other early efforts.
“To establish our prices we asked ourselves if our customers go to the grocery store what do they expect to pay,” James said. “We have to be less than the grocery store because we charge for shipping. We also asked, what’s the average direct marketer doing in the internet?’ If a customer is googling lamb meat they’ll probably come up with about five websites. We wanted to see their pricing. Since we’re growing a business we don’t mind being on the low side of that. We don’t want to lose money but we don’t mind breaking even until we get a customer base established that’s repeat. Our price is aggressively low to obtain a client base.”
Lisa and James pay Google a monthly advertising charge. For that fee they can provide Google with a set of key words that will bring up their website when a customer enters a search request into Google or another search engine.
“Every time somebody clicks on us it costs us about forty-cents,” James said. “So if we give them a monthly budget and that budget gets expended before the end of the month sales kind of trickle off. It might be 10 days into the month or 29 days. You can go to the Google home page and tweak it by adding more money or changing or decreasing the key words. Some people are clicking on us and never following through so that means we’re not meeting their needs. That suggests we should remove the key word they used from our list.”
If a customer does click and place an internet order with Sandstone Ridge Farm, Lisa or James will likely follow up with a phone call. Among other things, they will clarify the order and explain that packages of frozen lamb are not completely uniform. James and Lisa are striving for uniformity, however.
“You can’t say a package of lamb chops is going to be an exact price,” James said. “We told our butcher that it doesn’t really matter what size the loin chop is but we need each package to be about a pound. With the legs we decided to try and standardize them to about 5.5 pounds with the bone in. Since animals come in all different sizes we decided to take the top part of the leg and make steak out of it. So we get these leg of lamb steaks and a leg that’s pretty darn close to the five and a half pound average.”
Uniformity Is The Key
They take a similar approach to other cuts. But perfect uniformity in meat cuts is something to strive for but, possibly, never achieve. The solution to that is to get as close as you can and then not worry about it. James and Lisa ship their nearly uniform lamb cuts in homemade insulated boxes.
“When a box goes out to a customer it’s not prepaid,” James said. “We assume that people who are buying a high end meat product on the internet are not looking to scam us. To be sure customers are satisfied we always round up. When someone has paid for 13 pounds, for example, they get a little extra. We ship FedEx overnight or second day so after the meat is in the customer’s freezer we send them a Paypal invoice that has the exact FedEx cost. You can estimate FedEx up front but it’s impossible to nail it down exactly. Some people still send checks and most people pay right away. We have no real collection problems.”
Sandstone Ridge Farm’s business has expanded beyond the hobby that it was in the beginning. James attributes part of the growth to yet another stroke of luck. In addition to being easy to handle Tunis provide gourmet quality lamb. James says that any direct marketing of lamb requires that sort of high quality product.
To learn more about Sandstone Ridge Farm’s top quality registered Tunis sheep, and about their internet lamb marketing enterprise, visit their website at www.sandstoneridgefarm.com.