Lynn’s Dakotamart of Belle Fourche offers lamb produced by Kitzan Sheep of Nisland | TSLN.com

Lynn’s Dakotamart of Belle Fourche offers lamb produced by Kitzan Sheep of Nisland

By nature, many ranchers are the stay-at-home-and-tend-to-business type.

Most of the time that no-nonsense attitude serves the profession well, but the reserved personality can be a detriment when it comes to marketing a livestock owner's product.

For sheep producer Dwight Kitzan, Nisland, South Dakota, it's no problem at all. He's married to his marketing guru and she's finding markets for their lamb that he never dreamed were available.

For the first time in about 10 years, a staple grocery store in the heart of sheep country is offering their customers locally-produced lamb, complete with seasoning packets created and sold by Gwen Kitzan of Kitzan Sheep.

"It's a great product with a great price. It's a local product and we want to support local as much as possible," said Jim Grapentine the director of Lynn's Dakotamart of Belle Fourche, South Dakota.

His company has a strict USA-only policy when it comes to beef, said Grapetine. Even without Country of Origin Labeling, the Lynn's Dakotamart Chain has insisted on strictly USA beef from its supplier.

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"Every box of beef has a stamp on it – product of USA. My company strongly believes on that program. There are ranchers that own this company and we really feel strongly about USA only beef," he said.

Belle Fourche Chamber of Commerce Director Gary Wood was a big player in the brainstorming and conversation-making that led to the marketing arrangement for the local lamb, said Grapentine.

"The Chamber here in Belle Fourche put on a program called 'fall flavors.' They did an awesome job. They had lamb-cooking demonstrations by Kitzans. I told Gwen I was interested in carrying lamb in our store again," said Grapentine.

Gary Wood, the Belle Fourche Chamber of Commerce's director, said turnout was big for the lamb cooking demonstrations and consumers were wondering where to buy the product.

"Most of the people who attended the demo were former farm/ranch people who had eaten lamb before or the attendees just didn't know how to cook it. They were willing to try it but also needed to be able to purchase it locally. It was available at some meat markets but the grocery store was just easier for people to get it at."

"We used to be the sheep capital of the world, maybe we still are," said Grapentine, of Butte County, his home. "It (lamb) wasn't a product we carried anymore but with the demonstrations in town, they started some interest."

Wood said he recognizes how intertwined the local production agriculture sector is with Belle Fourche's local store fronts. "The local agriculture is really the bread and butter for most of our local businesses. We recognize hat and embrace it," he said.

"It was sad to me that we have so many lamb produces in the area, and the historic wool warehouse yet no one was carrying the product (lamb).

The store has been carrying Kitzans' lamb for a couple of months now, and has met with an encouraging response from customers, Grapentine said.

He loves to feature new products in the store. "So many people come to the store thinking 'what's for supper tonight.' They are tired of the same old thing, so we like to offer them new items."

While the lamb is generally valued higher than beef or poultry, the sticker price fluctuates from day to day, just as other proteins do.

Different cuts might fit different customer's budgets. "Lamb burger" is one big seller, Grapentine said, and is reasonably priced.

"Josh (Dwight's son) and I are in charge of procurement. Gwen is in charge of marketing," he said.

Gwen credits her daughter in law Heather for a lot of the promotional as well as the physical work.

Together, mother and daughter-in-law have inspired many to try lamb for the first time. Other customers, Kitzan said, are those who grew up eating lamb but haven't had access to it in recent years.

Gwen Kitzan said that lamb burger is a popular item, and is often used in gyros. Historically, a challenge for those wishing to market their own lamb has been finding buyers for excess cuts after the leg and loin are gone.

By teaching consumers how to prepare lamb and even offering her own custom-made seasoning packets, Kitzan has helped grow a new market for a centuries-old product – even cuts like the neck, belly and burger.

Kitzan started selling their homegrown, USDA inspected lamb at a Rapid City farmers market about five years ago and is finding demand for shoulder roasts, belly flap, ribs, soup bones, along with the traditionally popular items. Even the heart, kidney, liver and lamb fries get sold, she said.

"Our customers say the liver is milder and slightly sweeter than beef liver," she said, explaining that their lambs are slaughtered at about six to eight months of age, which is much younger than a beef animal.

Many of the farmers market customers are interested in the care and life of the lamb, Gwen said. "I tell them that we have a great appreciation for the lamb and that we are using every part we possibly can on that animal." The Kitzans sell tanned pelts, along with bones, which some customers buy to make bone broth – a trendy dish among some modern "foodies."

Gwen said their lambs have access to creep feed, but are raised mainly on pasture. Some lambs are butchered right off the ewe, while others are weaned – depending on the weather pattern and the amount of feed available. Those that are weaned are fed a ration developed by Dwight and their son Josh that often includes their own homegrown corn.

Kitzan lambs are slaughtered at around 120 pounds, resulting in carcasses generally weighing 55 to 57 pounds. The Kitzans' crossbreds are usually ready to slaughter at a younger age than the purebred Suffolks and South African Meat Merinos (SAMMS) thanks to hybrid vigor, Dwight said.

The industry-accepted method of determining whether an animal is lamb or mutton is to break the joint in the ankle after slaughter. If it doesn't break, the carcass is considered mutton, said Dwight.

Like beef, lamb must be USDA inspected in order to be legally sold across state lines. Fortunately for the Kitzan's, Sturgis Meats in nearby Sturgis, South Dakota offers that service. One of just a few federally inspected plants in the state, Sturgis Meats also butchers beef and bison.

Surveys done by the American Lamb Board indicate that American consumers prefer the taste of American lamb and are even willing to pay a little more for it, Gwen said.