Grass-fed lamb finds niche in Eastern Idaho
By John O’Connell
SODA SPRINGS, Idaho — At the heart of a major sheep production area in Eastern Idaho, John and Lori Anne Lau say they’ve found a niche market in direct sales of grass-finished lamb.
Grass-fed is a trending sector industry leaders expect to grow, as it already has in beef, as more producers seek to capture a roughly 20 percent price premium.
The Laus have paid no attention to the highs and lows of the lamb market since they switched to grass-finished production about a decade ago. Lori Anne Lau explained customers, both of her ranch’s lamb and beef, consider grass-fed to be more healthful and tastier than conventional, grain-finished meat, and most will accept no substitute. Therefore, they can set prices based on actual production costs and aren’t at the market’s mercy.
Thus far, John Lau believes marketing grass-fed lamb has been too labor-intensive for the region’s larger producers, who run several bands of sheep, and hobby farmers who sell mostly for 4-H projects lack sufficient volume.
To connect with a clientele seeking to know more about where food comes from, the Laus email newsletters highlighting everything from dates of deliveries to family news.
They sell about 100 lambs and 40 steers per year through local farmers’ markets and deliveries ranging from Idaho Falls south to Provo, Utah. They own 1,160 acres and lease 110 acres of farm and pasture, raising alfalfa and sainfoin for winter feed.
John Lau — a fifth-generation farmer in Soda Springs — once worked a full-time job managing a grain company, and spent 60 hours per week running the farm and ranch on nights and weekends. The switch to grass-fed production made it possible for him to quit his day job.
“We were the first generation in five that the same amount of land was having trouble supporting the family,” Lori Anne Lau said. “If you can’t reduce your costs, the only way to make a living is increase value and increase price.”
Grass-finished lambs are a growing trend regionally and nationwide, industry experts say.
Kathleen Bean, owner of Lava Lake Lamb in Sun Valley, Idaho, expects to sell 6,000 grass-fed lambs this season, with customers placing orders from throughout the country. She started selling grass-fed lamb directly to Idaho restaurants and co-ops in 2005. She believes Idaho grass-fed producers have a taste advantage because they graze on more acres and have a broader diversity of grass and forbs.
Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board, said about half of the lamb consumed in the U.S. is imported from other countries, such as New Zealand, where grass-fed production is the norm. Historically, her organization has emphasized the freshness of locally raised sheep, while importers have promoted health benefits of eating grass-fed meat.
Lately, Wortman said more domestically produced grass-fed lamb has become available. In Brownsville, Ore., for example, she said Anderson Ranches has switched to all grass-fed lambs and opened its own processing plant. She said the domestic supply of grass-fed lamb has grown enough for Whole Foods, which had been importing all of its grass-fed lamb, to begin making local purchases.
Wortman said processors estimate 30 percent of domestic lamb is now grass-finished, and U.S. grain-finished lamb is available for those who prefer a milder taste.