Lamb is a niche market in the U.S., with last year’s sales totaling $433 million. But demand is growing — just a little at a time, increasing by slightly less than 4%.
Four years ago, after much research, Melissa and LaRon Nikkel of Blazefork Lamb in Inman turned to raising sheep. Last year, they started selling their meat. So far, they are happy with the outcome.
The Nikkels sell their lamb online, hoping one day to distribute to restaurants and small stores. Like all businesses, there are different models to follow in this industry. Some, like the Nikkels, sell online. Others sell at farmers markets or grocery stores, and those with many lambs to harvest head off to large processing plants in Colorado.
After raising sheep for several decades, Lon James, of James Brothers Club Lambs in Clay Center, feels like he is in a good rhythm with his flock. James started out showing sheep in 4-H. When he started his own farm, he decided to raise sheep. Along with selling them for 4-H projects, James sells the meat at a local grocery store, the farmers market and from his ranch. Although the price of the animal keeps fluctuating, James is able to weather the storms with his diversification of customers as well as his calf/cow operation.
"It’s a lot more labor intensive than other animals," James said. "But I enjoy it."
Randy Clark, of Clark Farm in Buhler, diversifies in a different way. Along with lamb he sells beef, home-grown tomatoes, cucumbers and radishes. Clark has tended to his flock for several decades. But he only sells at the farmers market in Wichita.
"This year, there’s been an increase in sales in the farmers market," Clark said. "People are eating at home."
In the southwest corner of the state, Matt Canny of Wholly Cow Market and Farm in Johnson City, opened a store in his city’s downtown. During the coronavirus outbreak, he started selling lamb, beef and produce online. In addition, Canny drives up to Garden City, Great Bend and Scott City for deliveries.
"We can barely keep ground beef in stock," Canny said. "They want to try lamb. A lot of the farm to table has definitely exploded."
Building a customer base
COVID-19 has raised consumers’ awareness of where their food is coming from. This has increased local sales. But it takes a while to build up a customer base, especially for lamb.
The Nikkels, who are just starting out in the business, are excited for the opportunity to sell their lamb. They are taking it slow, keeping costs down by building their own walk-in freezer and grazing their sheep on their land. They also sell replacement stock and grow wheat and corn.
"We’re generally competing against a cheaper product (imported lamb)," LaRon Nikkel said. "It’s an industry challenge."
With 60% of lamb meat coming into the U.S. from Australia and New Zealand at low prices, U.S. ranchers are getting squeezed. Many grocery stores and restaurants feature this imported meat. Ranchers in the U.S. are hoping consumers demand U.S.-raised lamb at grocery chains and restaurants.
Megan Wortman, the executive director of the American Lamb Board, said that pre-COVID-19, restaurants were a good outlet for lamb.
"A lot of it (selling to local restaurants) is word of mouth," Wortman said. "The advantage is, the chefs will use the whole animal."
Many ranchers are apprehensive about next year. They are not sure how they are going to get their animals slaughtered as the small- to medium-sized meat processing plants are back-listed for months. Some places cannot offer a time slot until next summer.
"One of our biggest struggles is finding a packing plant (that has openings)," Canny said.
These farmers are among the 1,200 Kansans who raise lamb for meat. Of the 5 million sheep in the U.S., Kansas has 73,000. Kansas does not have much of a market for lamb, but direct to consumer demand is growing slightly.
"It’s good that people are looking for local products," Canny said. "It’s something that’s been missed."
Some cuts, like leg and loin, continue to increase in sales nationwide. While ground lamb is on a slight downward turn. Nationwide, according to the American Sheep Industry Association, loin makes up one quarter of all domestic lamb sales. Last year, lamb sales in Kansas decreased by 4%, bringing in slightly more than $10 million dollars.
"There has not been an increase in the number of lambs, but there’s definitely tremendous growth in the direct market," Wortman said. "Despite the doom and gloom, the direct to consumer markets are really booming."