From the Farmer's Tractor
January 29, 2012
Malissa Schentzel, 34, raises about 30 head of sheep on almost six acres of rolling land. Her farm, Little Acres Livestock, is located just 30 miles south of St. Paul, Minnesota. Schentzel also works full-time as the communications director for the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, a small state agency responsible for controlling and eliminating livestock diseases from the state. Her husband, Ken, teaches agriculture at Farmington High School and is the FFA advisor.
How did you get into sheep farming?
My husband and I have raised sheep since we were born. We're both from southwestern Minnesota. My father raised nearly 300 commercial ewes selling lambs to kids to use as 4-H and FFA projects and sheep to other producers to better their genetics. It was important to my husband and I that we raise our children on a farm, so when we decided to move closer to a metropolitan area – it became vital for us to find a small acreage nearby.
How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?
Little Acres Livestock started as a hobby farm a decade ago. Over the years, we dealt with fluctuating market prices and increasing costs. The combination of the two left most years with us in the red. So, we changed our marketing strategy. About three years ago, we began custom processing lambs for consumers in the metro area. We started small the first year, but have grown the business over time. We have hopes to grow it even more in the future. We have been able to meet a growing demand for locally grown lamb, while also stabilizing our market price. It also gives us a chance to develop relationships with our customers and share the farming story.
How will sheep farming evolve in the next five years?
Farmers raising sheep in the United States are experiencing a phenomenal market. The majority of the lamb reaching American consumers in the grocery store is shipped from New Zealand. If we are to compete with the foreign market, we must start by increasing the number of sheep in our flocks. Ken and I decided this was the year to start growing our flock too. We kept back a few more young ewes this year in hopes that we'll be able to help meet that consumer demand.
What is your greatest challenge as a sheep farmer?
For us, it's finding a balance. With only six acres, we have to make smart decisions on how to use the land we have and market the sheep we raise. Living near the city, our customers are close which allows us to help build the bridge between the farm and their plate. We've seen a strong interest from these folks to understand our farm, our animals, and our life. We welcome this and enjoy sharing how great farm life really is.
How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?
Consumers are vocal and willing to share what they want, if we are willing to listen. After a recent trip to Manhattan to speak to consumers, I found that most were interested in hearing how we raise their food, most were intrigued by conventional methods versus organic farming, and all had questions about living on the farm. If we open up a dialogue, I believe we will have an accurate picture of where we need to head. We will have more than three times the number of people to feed by 2050. If we start talking to consumers now, we can share the story of farmers meeting these increasing needs and they can ask questions in turn.
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?
We compost all of our old bedding and manure. The compost is then tilled into neighborhood gardens. Little Acres Livestock is proud to use all recycled paper bedding. Nearby small businesses, the school, and my state agency – the Minnesota Board of Animal Health – provide shredded paper. The paper is used to bed the livestock and is then recycled into compost.
Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?
All of our products are sold locally. Most people contact us after hearing about our products from other customers. We have done some local advertising, but due to having such a small number of animals, we actually have to be cautious not to over-advertise. This is one reason we are currently working to increase the number of animals we have. We have been contacted by restaurants and more consumers, but have had to put them on a waiting list. We’d like to be able to make sure everyone that wants our lamb can have it, so we’re working hard to make that happen.
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?
I love chatting with consumers. I have found that consumers enjoy being able to ask all sorts of questions. Our family rises before the sun and turns in after the sun is already in bed – I enjoy sharing how hard we work for them. I also love answering questions about how we care for our animals. Above all, our customers know that our farm has an “open gate” policy. They are always welcome to see the animals, help us with chores, or just bring the family for a visit. This policy has helped them feel a part of our farm and more comfortable with how their food was raised.
Watch Malissa Schentzel's video from last month here.