Editor’s note: This article appears in the Winter 2016/17 issue of the Slow Money Journal. Click here to learn more about the Journal »
I have been a sheep farmer for 15 years. It is my life calling. Quite an unexpected path for me, since I didn’t grow up in farming and my knowledge of sheep was very limited. I was, at one time, one of those people who didn’t know the difference between sheep and goats—and yeah, I can admit that now.
My career in sheep farming began with my former business partner. She had a dream to open a sheep dairy and creamery, and she wanted my help. Neither of us had any background in farming, so it took us a very long time to learn how to wear all the hats small-scale dairy farmers wear: businesswomen, grass farmers, mechanics, electricians, animal-welfare experts, and more. Together, we put in the years and created one of the best-known sheep dairies and creameries in the Midwest. We started selling our cheeses and yogurts at farmers’ markets and, finally, through national distribution.
By 2014, we had expanded our operation through collaboration with other small family farmers. We shared experience with and purchased sheep milk from these farmers. We built a great new revenue stream for our farmers and ourselves. However, we didn’t anticipate the problem this expansion would create—the fact that with the increase of milk came an increase in lambs. We grew from one sheep dairy to 10, and all of our lambs were sold directly to the livestock auction. They likely became feeder lambs and spent the rest of their lives in confinement, being fattened on GMO grains. This problem weighed heavily on me and fueled my desire to seek an alternative market for these lambs.
In 2014, I went to the Slow Money National Gathering in Kentucky. I was very curious about Slow Money. I had a lot of reservations, but I went with an open mind and what I experienced affected me profoundly.
It was at the Slow Money national gathering that the seeds for Central Grazing Company were planted. I was proud of the work my business partner and I created. However, when I returned home from the conference, I started to piece together my exit from the dairy business. My business partner was very supportive in my desire to start Central Grazing Company—something I will always be grateful for. I contacted Nancy Thellman, the founder of Slow Money Northeast Kansas, and applied to be an entrepreneur for their first-ever Entrepreneur Showcase. At the showcase, I made my pitch for the company to a room full of potential investors.
Central Grazing Company’s mission is to provide consumers with Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) raised lamb, while providing the farmers a value back for raising their animals with high animal-welfare and environmental standards. We encourage these high standards by sharing profits with our farmers. Central Grazing Company purchases lambs directly from farmers at a very fair commodity rate. At the end of the year, we share 50 percent of all net profits with our farmers. My family farm is one of seven farms currently providing Animal Welfare Approved lambs to Central Grazing Company.
My partner, ReGina, and I (along with our two small sons) rotationally graze our sheep just northeast of the Flint Hills in Kansas. We purchased this land when we decided to start Central Grazing Company. Much of the surrounding prairieland had been converted to crop or hay fields. We chose to purchase hay land instead of cropland, because we needed to start rotationally grazing immediately. Our soils are very poor and will need a lot of work to restore them, but I know that holistically grazing livestock is one of the best practices for prairie restoration. One year into grazing, I can already see some signs of our soils coming back to life.
My pitch at the Slow Money Northeast Kansas event went very well. A few days after the showcase, one investor loaned me $5,000. This money was used to get Central Grazing Company on its feet. We purchased labels and marketing material for our lamb with this money. In 2015, our first year in operation, we processed 105 lambs from two sheep dairies in Missouri. We placed our lamb in natural grocery stores in five states. Demand grew. I went back to our local Slow Money network looking for more funding to help us meet this new demand. We received $10,000 from two local investors and $30,000 from Cienega Capital, a California-based Slow Money lender. We have used this money to increase our supply of lamb inventory by purchasing 500 lambs directly from our producers and paying for processing of the lambs. With this increase in lamb inventory, we will expand our market into 15 states.
Slow Money allowed me a new perspective on how our individual financial decisions influence our local economy, our sustainable food systems, and our relationships in our community. As a farmer, I was impressed that people actually wanted to invest in companies like mine and I’ve been pleased that we can provide new opportunities for investors. Slow Money hasn’t just been a tool I used to fund my business. It has provided me with a community—a community that has helped me to create an alternative market for farmers, allowing our animals to live and behave naturally, while also preserving our precious grasslands.
After launching Central Grazing Company, I joined my local Slow Money network as a planning-committee volunteer. Through Slow Money I have developed relationships with neighbors, investors, mentors, and new friends, all of whom share the same values with regard to money and sustainable agriculture. The relationships formed around Slow Money principles elevate our entire community by supporting a sustainable approach to investing in the land we farm. It has been gratifying and exciting to be a small part of this movement.