It seems like spring is the time when most people are shopping for breeding animals, I get a lot of inquiries then. But this spring and summer, we were so busy with the barn, I put off doing much salesmanship. I was slow to finish analyzing my NSIP metrics so I could decide which animals I wanted to keep. I didn’t advertise because it takes time to answer phone calls and emails, and meet with people who want to look at the sheep. Still, several people found my website and inquired. I promised I’d get back to them.

So finally late summer, I figured I’d better get serious about moving some sheep out of here and started advertising. I emailed everyone who had inquired earlier in the year, on the off chance that one of them was still shopping for sheep. Only one was, but it turned out to be an interesting buyer. He emailed right back and said he’d take everything I had. (!)

I didn’t have that many breeding ewes to sell this year. I had 23 ewe lambs at weaning. I wanted to increase my herd a little, from 29 ewes to thirty-something. I culled two adult ewes, and lost two in accidental deaths. I ended up with a list of 14 to sell and 34 I wanted to keep. Two sold right away to someone local, and then here was a guy from California willing to come up here for a whole group of sheep.

Big Ag?

The buyer works for a burgeoning company that has two facets: Shasta Farms and Belcampo Meat Company. It was really interesting to talk to them. They are located in northern California, and are several years into a major “R&D effort” and on the verge of launching full operation of an organic meat ranch. That grows and sells every kind of meat. Even squab! (That’s delicious pigeon, if you didn’t know.) They are completing their own slaughter and butcher facility, which sill serve their own grower business as well as the surrounding community for custom slaughter. Their tagline on Facebook is this: We are: 1. the farm 2. the processor 3. the butcher.

They plan to deliver what customers everywhere are asking for: grass-fed organic meat, sometimes using heritage breeds, that’s sustainably raised, leveraging old-but-new methodologies like rotational grazing. I interacted with two employees- the one in charge of the sheep flock, and the one who picked up the sheep, who is running the poultry, rabbit, and goat operations. Both had backgrounds in agriculture and/or environmental sciences, were very knowledgeable about animal husbandry principles as well as this whole organic thing– and all that it encompasses, pro and con. I said that I was envious of them, getting paid to run a bankrolled ranch, and they professed, yeah, it’s kinda fun. They even get to show the farm’s animals in shows. Any 4-H or FFA kid’s dream job.

The enterprise makes me think of our own local Thundering Hooves, an eastern Washington organic ranch which went bankrupt last year- ironically due to high demand, not lack of demand. The owners cited  that they tried to gear up too quickly to meet this insane demand for organic meat, became over-leveraged in loans, and suddenly collapsed. We have a new problem: everyone in America wants “artisan” food, but artisans, by their very definition, aren’t large. Yet, our population is large. Even collecting all the artisans together, it’s questionable whether we can hit the required steady volume or manage the distribution channels needed to meet this demand.

Snohomish county is trying to fill  this niche with their soon-to-be Everett Farmers Market. But of course big commercial enterprises are also trying to move in, and may well need to, if this is where America is headed. Our culture is averse to the notion of big companies manipulating or taking advantage of us; and yet, big companies are what bring us the majority of what comprises our first world lives of luxury. Be it Verizon, Microsoft, GE, Ford, Proctor and Gamble, or General Mills: we have to admit  it, we all use product from big distribution models every minute of every day. When’s the last time you purchased artisan toilet paper, artisan cell phone minutes, an artisan car, artisan computer, artisan sandwich bags, artisan medication, an artisan MRI diagnostic image, or artisan fuel?Winking smile

I’ve seen some negative press already regarding this new Belcampo Meats, from people who are skittish about big anything. But I think it’s not black and white. This company may introduce competition that challenges the local small ranchers; it may dilute the market as it increases supply. But it’s also giving local ranchers a custom butcher to use (which I think will be USDA inspected, the Holy Grail of slaughter facilities). It was beneficial to me this year: paying asking price on breeding animals, which increases short-term demand for us, five hundred miles away from their own operation. And they are doing things which will promote our breed in the long run- exhibiting, advertising, funding a major marketing campaign. Since the organic wheel is being invented now while we witness, I’ll be very interested to see how this California company does as it wades into the market, and the impact it has. I suspect there is room for both big and small, and that they serve different niches, but we shall see!

Anyway, The Sheep…

I was particularly keen on their sheep operation, of course, and how they came to choose Katahdins as their breed of choice. Apparently they’ve done research with multiple breeds to find the best one for their model. They ruled out wool sheep, because fly strike is a problem in their climate. They ruled out Dorpers because of poor shedding and difficult temperaments. They selected Katahdins because of their productivity and ease of care. They are using Tunis terminal sires. And thus, they are ready to start building a large herd as they swing into full production.

I watch breeding stock prices in the Midwest, where Katahdin ewes there are going for $800+, and rams are well over a thousand dollars. I know there are well-known breeders in California who also probably keep prices high. So I can imagine it’s well worth sending a truck up to little ol’ Washington to pay a mere $350 for registered ewes. <sigh> Maybe our prices will start to catch up…

This farm required all the best practices of any good livestock manager: sheep had to be blood tested for Ovine Progressive Pneumonia Virus (OPPV) and Caseous Lymphadenitis (CL), and be issued a Certificate of Veterinary Inspection (CVI) and import permit. I had to scramble to make all this happen in the time frame they needed. CVIs are only good for fifteen days. So it’s a small timing orchestra to get a vet on a farm call to do the inspection and blood collection, get the blood tests there and back with the diagnostic lab, assembling all of the required paperwork, and then getting the sheep across the border in that small window.

As I’ve talked about before on the blog, I’ve been interested in testing for OPPV, but was so far deterred by the expense and labor involved. But I decided I might as well start, since the vet would be here anyway. I chose not to test my own ewes for CL this time, just because I’ve not seen any symptoms of it, the test has a high false positive rate, and it’s just another expense. I was so nervous when the vet called with the results, but luckily, everything was negative. Phew!

So last weekend, off went my remaining twelve ewes to join a herd on a 10,000 acre ranch in sunny California. In true Katahdin form, they stepped calmly into the trailer with gentle pressure from Maggie, no knee-banging or crashing around, and settled in to a comfy hay nest for the trip. Goodbye and good luck, ladies!