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Managing a Buying Club for Freezer Lambs

By Ulf Kintzel

If you are raising animals and are looking for an additional option to sell your product, consider selling it through a buying club. I do. While this method is the most involved and also the most nerve-wracking, it is also one of the least vulnerable options of all my sales, only second to my direct sales off the farm. Half way through reading this article you might start thinking that the local sales barn is not such a bad option after all, and I agree. Running a buying club is anything but easy. Yet, in the end it is rewarding and I don’t want to be without mine. So, here it goes:

When I left New Jersey and moved to upstate New York, one customer from near “the city” (in New Jersey that refers to New York City) asked me to deliver her lamb order to her. I asked her to get me nine additional orders to make it worth my while and she did. Fast forward, it is 4 years later and the lamb sales have grown from ten lambs once a year to a total of 50 lambs split into two annual deliveries of frozen, custom-harvested whole and half lamb orders. Each time I plan a delivery, I have to set a maximum number of orders, dictated by what I can load in my car in the summer and in my truck in the fall, and I always sell out within two days of announcing the delivery. The economic downturn put absolutely no dent into these sales. The customer base is extremely broad and represents a complete cross section of the population (although it all more or less started with a chapter group of the Weston A. Price foundation that passed the info around). My competition in that region is “Whole Foods”, also referred to as “Whole Paycheck” due to its extremely high prices. My prices are lower and my lamb is better.

The entire freezer lamb fits snug in a 12 by 12 by 12 box, 18 of those fit into our SUV's cargo space. Photo by Ulf Kintzel

My initial e-mail to all potential customers lays out the terms and conditions –  as far as pickup location and time is concerned. It stresses that I will be at that location for the hour specified. It also offers cutting instructions to choose from. It gives a price list for whole and half lamb orders. The prices are the same as the ones picked up at the farm and I charge a $20 delivery fee per order no matter what the size of the order is. It encourages people to put in larger orders. Half lamb orders are the most work but cost the same delivery fee. The delivery fee covers the travelling cost well, even at high gas prices. Does it also pay for my time? No, it does not. However, the drop-off location is near Clifton, NJ which is basically Polish. So is my wife which means we use the trip to go shopping in an authentic Polish store and eat lunch at a real Polish restaurant. The kids are always with us. Yet another example of making farming a lifestyle, don’t you think?

I do all communication by e-mail and I save all correspondence. My initial e-mail states that all correspondence will be by e-mail and that one should not order if he or she does not check e-mail frequently enough…just don’t be surprised if you get a call or two anyway from folks wanting to order by phone. I do everything by e-mail for my own sake, so that I am able to keep track   If I discuss things over the phone I will have forgotten half of what was said by the time I have hung up. Having everything in e-mails helps me to remember. Secondly, I do so to avoid arguments. A customer might say, “I had no ground meat in my order. Where is my ground meat?”. I can go back in my e-mails, re-send their cutting instructions and simply say “Sorry, you didn’t order any, you ordered stew meat instead. Do you want ground meat with your next order?”. That stops an argument before it begins and the customer won’t get mad. Here and there I do indeed make a mistake. The volume of information is at times too big to process. The best way of dealing with it is admitting it without excuses and offering something to make up for it. In one instance the mistake was big enough that I waived the delivery fee. The customer is still ordering, so it must have worked.

As far as the customers are concerned, buying clubs are not for everyone. In a society where people are used to getting whatever they want whenever they want it, it is not easy to convey the message that they have to be at a certain hour at a certain location and that the product cannot be left at the location. They MUST be there to pick it up. Most get it. Some do not. Some also just do not have the organizational skills to plan ahead, leave early enough from home, and be on time. These few make it at times difficult and nerve-wracking, even aggravating at times. What to do with those few? I am sorry to say but you just drop them as customers. The whole buying club will not work otherwise and will suffer because of a few.

Initially, I had read about buying clubs in an article by Joel Salatin. He stressed how rigorous he is about pre-payment and pickup time. I agree that without such rigid rules it won’t work. Some people do get upset with you over this. Some also get upset that the lamb needs to be paid for well in advance, even well before harvest. I believe the great majority understands and is grateful to get lamb delivered that would otherwise not be accessible to them or only accessible at far greater effort and cost. And the orders and the feedback of these folks reflect just that. The orders come in like clockwork and the feedback is always great.

New customers need to be educated a lot. It is entirely possible that there is an e-mail exchange of 10 e-mails going back and forth just to agree on how the lamb should be cut. That is understandable since most of these folks initially know absolutely nothing. Here is one example: “I want all four legs cut in half and boneless”. Sorry, there are only two legs. The front legs are the shoulders and aren’t called leg of lamb. Once educated, the e-mail exchange is reduced by ninety percent. So, take the time and educate. The better of a job you do, the fewer questions there will be later on.

The harvesting process has its own challenges. I don’t control what the butcher is doing and it is in the nature of his business that cuts are at times not as ordered or that my instructions weren’t as precise as I had thought. My butcher works with me and at times we try to accommodate unusual wishes but at the end of the day mistakes happen, unforeseen things happen. What the customer had in mind and what we understood is not always one and the same. That’s’ why I have a nice disclaimer in my e-mail to customers that cutting mistakes may happen, that I have no control or leverage over it, and that I shall not be held liable.

Four years into it, I hope to have worked out most of the kinks. The buying club remains one of the most involved ways of marketing my lambs. And yes, it is at times the most aggravating but what I say to the computer stays in the office and helps to blow off steam. The profit margin is as high as direct sales and I don’t depend on distributors to sell them. The sales account for about 20 percent of my total market lamb sales and are just as high as my off-farm sales. When  the economy went sour in 2008 the buying club kept working like the recession never happened. You also meet a number of interesting people with various backgrounds. And you can feel a little good about yourself, restoring some connection between city-dwellers and farmer by educating them throughout the year with a farm newsletter via e-mail. Needless to say, I don’t want to be without this buying club  as an option of selling my market lambs. If you can bear it, it’s a win-win situation for everyone.

Ulf Kintzel owns and manages White Clover Sheep Farm (www.whitecloversheepfarm.com) in Rushville, NY where he breeds grass-fed White Dorper sheep. He offers breeding stock and freezer lambs. He can be reached at 585-554-3313 or by e-mail at ulf@whitecloversheepfarm.com.

Copyright 2010 Ulf Kintzel. For permission to use either text or photographs please contact the author at ulf@whitecloversheepfarm.com

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