Green, Green Grass of Home
Lamb Shoppe of Hutchinson, Minnesota
Whether served as a simple stew, grilled steaks, or a full, glazed rack, lamb says “feast” in ways that neither beef nor poultry ever could. It’s a celebratory entrée, one that marks a gathering with honor and opulence.
Since we hold this truth to be self-evident, that only superior ingredients will do, the Wedge is proud to offer lamb from the Lamb Shoppe for the feasts you need to mark with honor and opulence.
Doug Rathke and Connie Karstens started the Lamb Shoppe in 1996, and their Hutchinson, MN farm has become a veritable think tank for all things sheep- and lamb-related. Not only does the Lamb Shoppe boast the first USDA-certified meat-cutting facility located on a sheep farm in America, with a retail store to boot, but Doug Rathke is an International Sheep Shearing Champion (he shears the old-fashioned way, with handblades), and Connie is a biologist, herbalist, and former university professor who taught nutrition at Bridgewater College.
That may seem like a gaudy set of credentials for sheep farming (really, we’re only scratching the surface of their expertise), but remember that the Lamb Shoppe handles every aspect of raising their product from developing the prairie soil that grows the grass, to the grass that feeds the animals, to the genetics of the sheep raised on their 180-acre farm, to retailing their product. Consequently, one has to know a little about everything.
“We do it all,” Connie says. “It’s a holistic farm management method.”
Genetics, for example. Connie’s biology degree came in handy researching breeds in the development of their herd. White-faced Dorset sheep proved to be the best because of their genetic background
“The [ewes] mother three times in two years and take well to pasture,” Connie says, making them ideal for the Lamb Shoppe’s grass-based operation. “Dorsett rams, too, tend to accelerate lambing. Most lamb is seasonal, but because of genetics [research], we can offer it year round.”
Honor the Land
Why is Lamb Shoppe meat a superior ingredient for your lamb feasts?
“We know everything about our animals,” says Doug. “We’re with them every day. We know if they’re getting too big or too fat. And we don’t force feed the grain to them.”
The feedlot practice of force-feeding grain to fatten livestock is what often gives lamb its famous “gaminess,” the very taste that puts so many people off. Furthermore, because sheep are ruminants, they’re meant to eat grass from pasture, which Minnesota has in abundance around Hutchinson. Force-feeding grain the way commercial lamb feedlots do actually shuts down the fourth and fifth chamber in a ruminant’s stomach system, according to Doug, “[Force feeding grain] makes the meat taste acidic and gamey,” Doug says, while pasturing makes lamb taste the way it should.
Consequently, the very taste of Lamb Shoppe’s meat is a testament to their prairie farm’s grazing practices, conducted in a way to “honor and restore the land,” as Connie and Doug say on their website.
Have You Any Wool?
True to its “holistic” approach, the Lamb Shoppe doesn’t stop with genetics, meat, and pasturing their flocks sustainably. They also shear sheep, and Thanksgiving-time brings a different season for Doug. As the first American to receive the Gold Seal from the New Zealand Sheep Shearing Board, Doug shears sheep for three hundred clients around the Upper Midwest.
“Many crop farmers have a few sheep that usually like to lamb in winter time,” Connie explains. Normally, lambing would happen in spring, but heated barns alter that natural cycle. So when temperatures drop, and the sheep go in for the winter, Connie says, “The sheep-shearing season begins. That’s when it’s time to get the wool off the ewes before they lamb, so lambs can easily find milk.”
As a result, Doug has steady shearing work from winter through June. He’s also hoping to represent the United States in 2008’s International Sheep Shearing competition in Norway.
Meanwhile, Connie’s background as a professional nutritionist pays off with recipe development. If you’re looking for great ways to prepare lamb to the best effect, consult Connie’s list of recipes at the Lamb Shoppe’s web site(two of her recipes are included below). Most were written by Connie herself, though customers of the Lamb Shoppe’s on-farm store contributed a few, and we were particularly enticed by the Crown Rack with Orange Cranberry Stuffing. The two recipes included below are great “beginner” recipes if you’re new to cooking with lamb.
Lamb Shoppe certainly boasts the credentials, both as a farm and as a pillar of the local food community. As a result, their lamb is a superb example of “terroir,” that is, the ineffable taste specific to a region. When one can taste the difference between an anonymous, enormous feedlot’s product and the meat from a local farm, that’s terroir – a taste celebrating and honoring our prairies, our grass, and our very sun and rain.
By Barth Anderson