Intermountain Farm & Ranch, Friday, August 12, 2005
By Benjamin Gisin
Century farm travels a new/old road
Soda Springs couple put cattle, sheep on healthy diet for best meat
Soda Springs-John and Lori Lau represent the fifth generation working land on a ranch that had its beginnings back in 1882. This centruy farm, with 123 years of Lau family history, constists of 1,100 acres five miles north of Soda Springs.
After considerable research and investigaton, the Laus decided to raise their beef and lamb without hormones, antibiotics or feed additives. Most of the feed is grown on the farm, including alfalfa, sainfoin and grass mixtures and oat hay.
The Laus say this diet creates meat high in Omega-3 essential fatty acid, Vitamins E and A and high in Conjugated Linoleic Acid, a cancer-fighting, heart healthy nutriet. The slow, steady growth of grass-fed animals means they are naturally lean, and contain less than half the total fat of grain-animals.
"Our meat tastes just like meat that Grandpa used to raise," Lori Lau said. "Our ranching practices are almost identical to those of 100 years ago when everything was done naturally."
Marketing under the Lau Family Farm Label, the Laus sell directly to consumers. Each week the Laus trek to farmers markets in Pocatello and Logan, Utah. They make monthly stops in Idaho Falls outside the Wealth of Health on Woodruff Avenue and in Ogden, Utah outside the Pizza Runner. The Laus also take orders over the phone and via e-mail.
Direct marketing takes a lot of work. Days may start before 5 a.m. and go till late evening when they sell at farmer's markets.
Raising feed and livestock coupled with marketing efforts takes the full-time attention of both John and Lori. The Laus stay connected with other ranchers and may buy calves that were raised in similar fasshion to assure their customers a continuous supply of quality meat.
To meet the varying needs of their customers, the Laus fill orders as small as one steak up to a whole beef or lamb. The animals are processed when they are in top condition to provide the best quality meat possible. The meat is dry aged to promote tenderness and enhance flavor. The animals are taken to UDSA-inspected plants for processing, then vacuum-packed and frozen to prevent loss of quality. The Laus' operation consists of 55 red Angus/Hereford cross mother cows and about 80 Columbia ewes. One of the Laus' goals is to minimize stress on the aimals whenever possible. This reduces the likelihood of health problems and increases the quality of the end product.
The Laus are part of a growing trend where quality-conscious consumers are connecting directly with farmers who are working to provide more natural foods while reducing their environmental footprint.
For more information on the Lau Family Farm call (208) 547-3180, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their Web site: www.laufamilyfarm.com
This Idaho family shares their experiences in establishing a direct marketing program for their naturally grass-finished beef and lamb.
By Kindra Gordon
As the trend of consumers wanting to know where their food comes from continues, direct marketing of family farm raised-products – especially meats – is gaining momentum. A decade ago, a handful of producers could be found selling their meat to health conscious-consumers. Today, the business of direct beef sales – at farmer’s markets, in local communities, and on the web – is becoming more commonplace.
While selling your own farm-raised beef can be gratifying, it doesn’t come without volumes of hard work and effort. John and Lori Anne Lau and their two young children Tommy and Becca of Soda Springs, Idaho have experienced that firsthand.
They are the fifth generation of Lau’s to be farming and ranching in the Five Mile Meadow in southwestern Idaho, about four hours north of Salt Lake City. Avid stewards of the land and sustainable agriculture, in the fall of 2003 the Lau’s decided to act on their dream of direct marketing their own farm-raised meat. They held five steers and a few head of lambs from their herd to grass finish, and then set up shop every Saturday at farmer’s markets during the summer of 2004. Lori Anne says, “Thankfully, the meat started selling, and people kept coming back for more. We haven’t really look backed since.” Here, she shares candid comments about what they learned in the process and their goals for direct marketing in the future.
What inspired you and your husband to start this new venture? Did anyone give you guidance in getting started?
Lori Anne says the first time she really considered direct marketing was when she heard Virginia author and farmer Joel Salatin speak at an Idaho conference several years ago. Salatin says the industrialization of agriculture has created cheap “food” that is flavorless, unsafe and produced under nightmarish conditions, and he believes consumers are increasingly aware of this and willing to pay more for quality food grown locally. Thus, Salatin is a proponent of small scale farming that is humane, healthy, diverse and profitable – as well as centered on family life. His most recent book, Family Friendly Farming, outlines how to approach both farm and family so that a farm not only provides a decent living but a good life.
After Salatin piqued Lori Anne’s interest – and confidence that direct marketing could be viable – stories in the Stockman Grass Farmer magazine inspired her further. “They have a lot of stories about folks directly marketing grass-fed beef and lamb in various parts of the country,” she says.
As their enthusiasm for direct marketing began to build, Lori Anne says they also came to the realization that they didn’t want to continue with the status quo. Husband John was working full time at a job that kept him from spending time with his family and was then trying to farm/ranch before and after work and on weekends.
So after kicking around the idea of direct marketing for several years, in the fall of 2003 the Lau’s got serious about making it a reality. They kept five steers to grass finish and began to research what needed to be done to direct market those animals. Lori Anne says information for university and other farms’ websites provided her a good starting point. She is also appreciative of information provided by fellow Idaho rancher Caryl Elzinga at Alderspring Ranch (www.alderspring.com), who has been direct marketing grass-fed beef for over a decade.
Lori Anne also credits her father, a former chief financial officer for major corporations, for assisting her in building a realistic business plan and looking at the project from all angles before taking the plunge.
Today, the Lau’s grass-fed beef and lamb is sold as individual cuts, bundles of cuts for grilling or roasting, and as whole, half, or quarter carcasses. They are proud to say that their animals are never given hormone implants or fed antibiotics and are raised in a low stress environment. The animals are processed at USDA inspected plants and the meat is dry aged to promote tenderness and enhanced flavor. It is then vacuum-packed and frozen to prevent loss of quality.
What has been the biggest challenge?
Of their new venture, Lori Anne says the biggest challenge has been finding the time to do everything necessary. “Keeping track of the inventory, contacting customers all winter, setting prices, filing orders, logging sales, following up with stores interested in our product, creating a website, creating materials to give to customers, it all takes time,” she says, and adds, “Finding time to do all of these new things, while running our farm, taking care of our two small children and still having a life has been hard for both John and I.”
Lori Anne says learning the meats business has also been essential. “There was definitely a learning curve of how best to turn an animal into saleable cuts. We had to listen to our customers to learn what they wanted. I also had to learn where each cut comes from so I could understand that if you get shoulder chops you can’t get a shoulder roast,” she says.
Fortunately she says their butcher was helpful, and they have not one but two nearby processors they can work with. One has the capability to make sausage, jerky etc., which she says will be beneficial in the future for offering more variety of products to customers.
What are a few of the lessons you’ve learned about direct marketing?
Lori Anne reports one of the biggest lessons learned was in selecting a name for their company. Initially, they picked the name Oregon Trail Natural Meats because they felt that pioneers had positive connotations for most people and because Soda Springs is on the Oregon Trail.
However, when they first went to farmer’s markets the name was met with confusion. “We found that people thought we were from Oregon. Once we explained the background, they got it, but clearly we had a problem. People in Pocatello, ID and Logan, UT just didn’t make the Oregon Trail connection,” Lori Anne says.
She was met with more problems when she started trying to get meat labels. Turns out Oregon Trail was a “geographic” claim to the government, meaning all of the animals would have to come from the Oregon Trail area. And since the Oregon Trail area is not specifically defined, the Lau’s were unsure if they could buy animals from just down the road or not. Additionally, since their processor was not on the Oregon Trail, they would have been required to add a phrase telling where the plant was located.
As if that wasn’t enough, to use the Natural Meats claim a government definition for that would have been required on the label as well.
“We were running out of room for the important things we wanted on the label,” says Lori Anne. So the decision was made to change the company name to Lau Family Farm. Lori Anne says, “We chose this name to try to emphasize that we are just a small family trying to make our animals support us. We hope that our new logo of a family in front of a barn and mountain emphasizes who we are.”
Presently, the Lau’s are finalizing approval of a grass-fed, no added hormones, no antibiotics label for their product.
Reflecting on other lessons she’s learned over the past year, Lori Anne says they’ve also recognized that right now they are too small to supply larger health food stores and restaurants. “We simply can’t supply a restaurant a steady supply of just one or two cuts, other than ground beef maybe,” she says.
Because of this, she is trying to think out of the box. “I’m hoping we can interest some ethnic special event caterers, or chefs who vary their menu, or having our meat as a restaurant special may be options. We aren’t sure if direct sales to families in our local area will generate enough volume to support us so we are always trying to find other avenues to market our meats,” she says.
How have you created awareness for the beef and lamb you raise and sell?
Right now the Lau’s primary outlet is a booth at the two farmers markets closest to them in Pocatello, Idaho and Logan, Utah. They’ve also put fliers up on bulletin boards, at health food stores, farm stores, and post offices (but found out that last one was a no-no).
Lori Anne is also using the Internet as a tool to get the word out. She has created their own website with product and prices listed (see www.laufamilyfarm.com). In the future, she hopes to update the site with recipes, links to others, a calendar of events and other information that might be useful to customers.
They’ve also listed Lau Family Farm at Localharvest.com, a website where consumers can find local sources for just about anything agricultural, and plan to get listed at EatWild.com, another great resource for those looking for a source for grass-fed meats.
Throughout the year, Lori Anne has worked to keep their name in front of the public. She attended four holiday craft shows to help create awareness, will be speaking at a “Sustainable Agriculture” conference at a nearby university, and the family will participate in a local Earth Day Celebration.
In addition to these efforts, they plan to do some limited advertising in the future, likely in the local newspaper and on National Public Radio in the Logan, UT area where many of their target audience is.
Lori Anne says they will soon also have a roadside sign to further create awareness for Lau Family Farm Meats as well.
What are the highlights and rewards in undertaking the challenge of marketing your own meats? What would your goals be for the next 3-5 years?
“The highlights are customers who rave about our meat. It feels so good to hear people love what you have tried so hard to produce,” says Lori Anne. She adds, “Another highlight for me is when a customer hugged me and told me she had really enjoyed getting to know us and learning about where her meat was coming from. Her husband is a butcher at a major retail chain and they are buying lots of our meat.”
Having their family work closely together has also been a special reward for the Lau’s. John left his job last July and Lori Anne says, “I love having John home more now, as do our kids. It should allow him to be the kind of steward to the land and the animals that the lack of time made difficult before.”
Lori Anne tells that even their children are learning valuable marketing lessons. She relates that last summer their then 4 year old little boy Tommy earned enough money selling apples and plums (from their trees) to buy the wooden “lever action rifle” he had been eyeing for months at the drug store. “He was so proud to go in there with his own money and pay for the riffle all by himself,” she says.
Looking forward, Lori Anne says their primary goal is to create enough healthy, tasty meat and find enough customers who want to eat it to support their family business adequately. “To this end our goals would be to fine tune our production methods so our product is more consistent and produced more quickly. Our marketing goals are to find as many families as possible in our target areas who want our product and to keep them buying due to great meat, great customer service, and connectedness to the process.”
The Lau’s also plan to continue their stewardship of the land by incorporating a management intensive grazing system (MIG) so they can further enhance the condition of their pastures.
Additionally, Lori Anne says they are seeking ways to potentially expand. “We have considered forming a small co-op with other families or may pay a premium for their natural grass-fed animals,” she says. The Lau’s are also looking at other enterprises to enhance their bottomline. For example, Lori Anne says they may look into marketing natural farm pork and poultry produced by others, for which there is a great demand, and which they can sell along with what they produce.
Overall, Lori Anne and her husband agree that they are glad they took the steps to try direct marketing. “We love farming and ranching and are thrilled to be able to provide wholesome and tasty beef and lamb to so many families. Our customers have been uniformly great. They seem to understand that we are just starting out, and that we can’t make a beef have more than two flank steaks or tri-tips no matter how hard we try. They seem to be willing to wait for these rarer cuts (we let them reserve them). If we can’t get them what they want I do try to help them locate another source. I want them to go away happy,” says Lori Anne.
She adds, “Even if this business doesn’t end up supporting us adequately, I would never go back. If one of us has to get a job, or possibly we leave the farm, at least we tried to reach our dream. We didn’t just sit back and wish and dream, we really tried to attain it.”
Contact the Lau family to order their beef or lamb at 208 547-3180, by e-mail at email@example.com or visit them at the Pocatello or Logan Farmer’s Markets on Saturday mornings. Their website is www.laufamilyfarm.com.
After 120 years of raising cattle and sheep for the wholesale market, the Lau family is changing the focus of their operation. John and Lori Anne Lau of Soda Springs, Idaho, have opened Lau Family Farm and are now marketing their grass fed lamb and beef directly to the consumer.
"We are excited to be providing naturally healthier and tastier meat to families in SE Idaho and northern Utah. Additionally, we are selling our beef and lamb as individual steaks, chops, roasts, etc., that you can use for tomorrow’s dinner, as well as traditional quarters, halves and wholes” said Lori Anne. There is a subscription program where a family can get monthly deliveries of meat, as well as special orders for fresh meat on a limited basis. The Lau's are also planning to make deliveries throughout the winter to towns in SE Idaho and northern Utah.
“Our free-ranging animals spend their lives enjoying the native pastures, fresh water, and clean air, we have in Soda Springs”, said John Lau. In winter, they are fed a variety of nutritious hay, most of it grown on their farm. This healthy diet creates meat high in Omega-3 essential fatty acid, Vitamins E & A, and high in CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid) – an anti-cancer and heart healthy nutrient. This more costly, slow steady growth and development of grass-fed animals means they are naturally lean, and contain less than half the total fat of grain-fed animals.
The Lau’s are proud that their animals are never given hormone implants or fed antibiotics and are raised in a low stress environment, keeping them naturally healthy. For example, they calve and lamb in April, ‘as nature intended’. Their young animals, less stressed by the spring weather, rarely get sick. The rare animal that requires antibiotic treatment for health reasons is removed from the program. Thus ensuring a better, healthier end product to you the consumer!
They have their meat dry aged the Old World way to promote tenderness and enhanced flavor. The animals are processed at U.S.D.A. inspected plants and then vacuum-packed and frozen to prevent loss of quality.
“The publics response at the Pocatello and Logan farmers markets has been really great, which makes it worth getting the kids up at 5am for the trip to the Logan on Saturday mornings…the kids are real troopers!”
You can contact the Lau family today to order a few cuts at 208 547-3180, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit them at the Pocatello or Logan Farmer’s Markets on Saturday mornings.