Reprinted with permission from Cooperative Partners Magazine
By Linda Tank
For Minnesota farmers Connie Karstens and Doug Rathke, raising sheep is their livelihood as well as their lifestyle.
The couple's business, Liberty Land and Livestock, began 11 years ago when Connie and Doug married and decided to make sheep their focus.
Both brought experience to the venture: Doug was a professional shearer and instructor, and Connie, a nutritionist, had raised and shown sheep in 4-H while growing up on her family's farm.
"We've always shared an interest in sheep," says Connie.
The couple handles the animals from birth to market. The largest part of their business is direct marketing meat with their own USDA approved Liberty Lamb label.
To diversify, they sell some breeding stock, and Doug shears about 10,000 head of sheep a year in the midwest.
He also conducts shearing schools throughout the U.S. and sometimes internationally. A farm-stay program that lets visitors experience the life of a shepherd is the couple's newest venture.
To assure a constant supply of lambs, Doug and Connie raise Dorset sheep. Ewes lamb in mid February, May, October, and November, but they sell 800 to 1,000 lambs a year, more than double the crop from their 250 ewes.
To meet the lamb demand, the couple pools efforts with Connie's dad and buys lambs from several other producers. Eventually, they hope to increase their ewe flock to 500.
Connie and Doug use a variety of outlets to market fresh lamb. Most is sold at The Lamb Shoppe, a retail store connected to their Hutchinson farm home.
The USDA-approved facility is the first of its kind in the nation, says Connie. "We had to work through a lot of regulatory hoops to get it done."
With a low-interest loan from the Agricultural Utilization and Research Institute (AURI), an organization that offers marketing advice and financing to promote value-added agriculture in Minnesota, the couple built and opened the store in October 1996.
Doug and Connie cut and package all meat at the Lamp Shoppe. Located along a well-traveled highway, the store attracts many regular customers and others driving by. A lighted billboard in the farm's front yard helps attract attention.
Customers can take their pick of Liberty Lamb cuts. Lamp chops, roasts and ground lamb are the top sellers, says Connie. They also produce and sell Jersey beef under their own label.
A new lab offering called Cuisine by Constance is in the works. It will feature pre-seasoned lamb ready for the oven or grill.
"I think of it as no-mind cooking," says Connie. "I want to make it easy for consumers to prepare a gourmet meal with lamb."
The couple also markets lamb to two upscale Twin Cities restaurants. One of their most notable customers was Donald Trump.
"The restaurant told us he requested lamb and they served ours," says Doug.
Minnesotans have a chance to sample Lamp Shoppe cuisine at the family's state fair food booth.
"With 1.5 million fair-goers, it's a great way to generate exposure for our product and learn more about what our customers like," says Connie.
The couple has operated the food booth for the past six years and markets more than one ton of lamb during the fair's 12-day run. This year, they'll add a "lamb wrapper" to their one-of-a-kind menu, which features lamb on a stick and lamb gyros.
A relentless focus on quality helps the couple differentiate their brand from other meat. It starts with genetics and includes everything from ration balancing to carcass evaluation, says Doug. The sheep are raised hormone-free, using intensive rotational grazing to maximize production from 180 acres.
Depending on grazing conditions, sheep spend one to five days grazing in one-acre paddocks before moving to fresh grass.
"Some days all we have to do is open a gate and we've done our chores for the day," says Connie.
To keep chores to a minimum in winter, Doug grinds round bales of hay and piles them in the yard so ewes can help themselves. Lambs receive whole shelled corn, hay and minerals. Before lambing, ewes' rations are balanced weekly to track higher protein requirements.
Doug and Connie started using intensive rotational grazing nine years ago after receiving a Sustainable Ag grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
This spring, they'll use plant-tissue analysis to see how different soil types within paddocks affect grass quality.
"We've learned that if we take good care of the land, the animal will take care of itself," says Doug.
By running the farm as efficiently as possible, the couple has more time to devote to marketing and education. The farm-stay program they implemented last summer brought a dozen visitors to the farm to learn the basics of the sheep business.
Doug and Connie have a lot more marketing ideas they want to try. "I see us continuing to work together in this operation," says Connie. "This is a true partnership."