Raising Lamb, Delivering Locally
Delavan’s Pinn-Oak Ridge Farm doubles as processing hub
Wearing a tan, canvas baseball cap embroidered with her own logo, Pinn-Oak Ridge Farm owner Darlene Pinnow patiently awaited me at Bavette La Boucherie, the hippest new butcher shop in Milwaukee’s Third Ward.
Darlene sat with her hands neatly folded and a nervous smile on her face – eager to chat, but unsure what to expect. She was slightly out of her element – a country girl in the big city. Pinnow grew up in a farming family; between Darlene and her husband Steve, there are five proud generations of farmers. So when the two married 43 years ago, it was only natural that they buy their own farm.
We had agreed to meet at Bavette because Darlene was there every Thursday to hand-deliver Chef Karen Bell’s order. As she told me about how she got started in this business, I was still trying to grasp the idea that the lamb she was delivering had just been harvested and processed on Monday in Delavan. It was as simple as that: farmers and chefs, working in perfect harmony – with no middleman and no big, evil, food-processing corporation. This is the most positive trend to come out of the U.S. food industry since Greek yogurt, I thought.
“Lamb is great in so many dishes because it has a wonderful, unique flavor,” Bell said. “In addition, it can be quite versatile. You can cook it in curries or spicy dishes and the lamb flavor still comes through and does not get masked. And once (customers) taste the delicious local lamb that we have, they definitely come back for more and regularly comment on how amazing it is.”
Steve and Darlene have been direct marketing their gourmet lamb to restaurants, supermarkets and the general public for 16 years. As they were developing the business, they questioned other purveyors and professionals so they could learn from their mistakes and do things right the first time. They were surprised and exhilarated to find people willing to help, and that there was such a market for their product. Chef Jack Kaestner, MATC culinary arts instructor and former executive chef at the Oconomowoc Lake Club, strongly supported their decision to add a processing plant to their farm.
Pinn-Oak Ridge Farm markets under the brand Wisconsin Lamb because they work with nearly 20 different small family farms throughout South-eastern Wisconsin. These producers follow Pinn-Oak Ridge’s strict protocols to help meet demand for the 2,000 lambs they process, package and distribute every year. Steve and Darlene tend to a flock of about 200 ewes that produce 350-400 lambs each year at their 180-acre property, which also includes their home and a federally-monitored processing plant they built five years ago.
“You are what you eat,” Darlene repeated the old adage to prove their lamb gets its mild and sweet taste, and juicy and tender consistency, because of the careful diet that Pinn-Oak provides. Two weeks before the pasture-raised flocks are harvested, the Pinnows feed them a mixture of grains, corn, soybeans, vitamins and minerals. The lamb is always under 10 months and 120- 140 pounds to ensure consistency in the taste and quality of the product.
Aside from the diet, the freshness of the lamb accounts for its superior taste. Darlene hand-delivers the orders Tuesday in the Madison area, Wednesday in Chicago and Thursday in Milwaukee.
“The entire operation has grown by word of mouth,” said Darlene. “The best advice I could give is to start small and let it grow on its own. We have chefs calling us now!”
Aprahamian came out to the farm last June, along with his chefs on their day off, to cook a farm dinner. It was a country casual affair for 80 of their closest friends, showcasing a trilogy of lamb: shoulder, rack and shank.
Aside from a set of fastidious border collies, Dutchess, Duke and Daisy, to herd the flock, Steve and Darlene do most of the work on the farm themselves.
Their full-time butcher David Terlunen is their nephew, and there are just two other part-time staff who help with harvesting. The Pinnow’s son Jeff pitches in with farm chores and their daughter Jenny works the technical side of the business.
“I am approaching 65, but I haven’t even thought about retiring,” Darlene said. “Then I’d be jealous that someone else was having all the fun!” The work keeps them young and healthy, she said.
Outdoor, manual labor in Wisconsin keeps you young? That’s news to me. But Darlene reassures me: “It’s a lot of long days and nights, but it’s very rewarding.”
Find Wisconsin Lamb in over 90 grocery stores and restaurants from Milwaukee to Chicago to Madison, and smaller communities in between. Or take a trip out to the country and visit the retail store on the farm. They ship anywhere in the U.S., and are happy to assist with orders.
“Give us a call, we like to help people get what they really want,” Darlene said.
Pinn-Oak Ridge Farm will also be showing lamb and serving Wisconsin Lamb sandwiches at the Wisconsin State Fair July 31-August 10.
The rise of locally sourced meat, Nationwide
• Of 1,300 professional chefs surveyed through the National Restaurant Association, local sourcing of meat and seafood tops the list of predicted trends for 2014.
• According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, direct-to-consumer marketing grew 118 percent from 1997 to 2007, rising to $1.2 billion in sales from $551 million during the period.
• Limited access to federal- and state-inspected slaughter facilities continues to be a challenge for locally marketed meat products, which explains why supply isn’t keeping up with the growing demand, according to advocates.
• Expansion of the local meat sector will continue to depend on the willingness of consumers to pay premiums high enough to absorb the costs associated with the processing and production program.