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Niche Programs

By Christy Hemken, WLR Assist. & Crop Editor

Douglas - A farmer from Pine Bluffs raising several crops as 100 percent organic, Clint Jessen of Jessen Wheat is a part of what has been a family farm since 1910.

Speaking at the recent Ag-based Innovative Marketing Expo (AIMe) in Douglas, Jessen detailed some of what his farm has been through since going organic.

“The current farm has been there since 1946, when it was purchased after World War II by my grandfather. Since 1946, with the exception of spot spraying, we were essentially organic, but it just wasn’t a known term until recently,” said Jessen. “We just always farmed that way because we never put an extra dollar into the farm more than we had to.”

“When I took over the operation it was still organically farmed because they had staying power. In 2001 I met my wife and we went to a conference where there was a gentleman talking about organic wheat,” he continued. From there it didn’t take long to become certified, and the farm’s been certified organic since 2002.

After that initial conference the Jessens met a grain buyer, who said he’d pay a premium for their product if it was organic. “We were certifiable, but I was very reluctant to do it, and my wife thought it was the greatest thing in the world. She wasn’t from a farm family so she was thinking outside the box and had no prior knowledge of how things have traditionally been done. She said she’d do all the paperwork, so I said, ‘Ok let’s try it.’”

Jessen said he didn’t have the change the way he farmed, with the exception of products he used to control noxious weeds.

“We found a certifier and started the process and started the long form, which is approximately 28 pages of farm history questions. It was basic information that we had to go back and think about, with a three-year history of every field as far as crops and rotations and inputs used,” he explained. “We had to number all of our fields and mark our buffer zones and field boundaries.”

The Jessens use 36-feet-wide buffer zones between their organic crop and the conventional neighbors’ where the crop is left to harvest until the end, after which it’s sold as conventional.

After installing orange posts to mark the buffer zones within their field boundaries and sending letters to notify neighbors of what was going on, Jessen said a neighbor has still cut their buffer zones for the past few years as a part of his field because he thinks the posts mark a new property line. “Saves us time, I guess,” he noted.

After filling out the form and doing their best to meet all regulations, Jessen said that’s still not a guarantee of certification. “It just means that you think you’re organic.”

Jessen said one of the top three pros in favor of raising organic crops is the profit in terms of dollar figures. “All the paperwork made our farm more efficient. It was easy to see where we’d been messing up for years because we’d never kept the paperwork. I’d say even conventional farms should be doing 80 percent of the organic paperwork anyway. We weren’t reinventing the wheel, we just kept track of the number spokes on it.”

“Another pro is there is a premium paid over conventional crops. At first  we were doing it for the money, but now it’s become so much more,” said Jessen.

Jessen said the percent of premiums varies on every crop and every buyer. “It’s all about negotiation and marketing. The big thing is that it’s made our farm sustainable, and bankers like sustainability. When we first got into organics they give us a deer-in-the-headlights look, but then we told them it’s sustainability, which they’re more on board with that. I feel it’s increased our land value due to the fact that it’s increased our premiums.”

Jessen said a drawback to organics is the certification fees, which vary, but can add up. Also, crop insurance is higher, with a five to 10 percent higher premium but the same level of coverage.

“The paperwork, audit trail, inspections and extra work that comes along with organic is labor intensive and has created a full-time job for my wife. She does all the paperwork and most of the marketing and maintains daily journal,” said Jessen. “We even went so far as to put maintenance logs in the tractors, and that goes back to the suggestion that 80 percent of organic paperwork should probably be maintained by a farm anyway.”

Jessen said there’s more labor in the field with tillage, marking buffer zones and clean-downs on semi trucks and combines. “Sometimes I’m sitting in a tractor in the same field and I’ve been there six and half hours and the farmer next to me has sprayed his entire field and gone home and I’m still there burning diesel.”

And Jessen said that inspection remains stressful. “No matter how many of your ducks are in a row, when the inspector shows up it’s still stressful. We’ve mow the grass and wash the windows and make sure everything’s ship-shape.”

“Organics forced us to take control of our marketing costs and pay close attention to detail,” he concluded. “Other than the fact we don’t use chemicals or synthetics, this is what organics is more about to me - accountability and the audit trail and knowing that I produced this seed, where it was planted and harvested and who it was sold to and where it went from there. That is the most important thing – accountability.”

“It’s no secret that the lamb industry has been faced with a major challenge,” said the American Lamb Board (ALB) in a March 27 update on the implementation of the Industry Roadmap. “An industry decision to be more intentionally proactive about this downward trend resulted in the adoption of the Lamb Industry Roadmap at the 2014 Annual Sheep Convention.”

The Roadmap, which was developed by leaders of every sector in the U.S. sheep industry, laid out the path by which the lamb industry looked to grow and improve.

“The Roadmap is much more than a set of guidelines, good ideas or wishful thinking,” ALB commented. “It’s a hands-on guide depicting a unified path toward industry growth.”

One of the major challenges facing the industry has been a decline in consumption of lamb by Americans. 

Data shows that from the mid-1940s to 2012, consumption dropped from 4.87 pounds of lamb per capita each year to only 0.31 pounds. 

“While many factors have contributed to consumer decline in consumption – some of those factors being outside our control – it was acknowledged that there were actions that the sheep industry could – and indeed should – take to move the bar in its favor,” ALB noted. 


As a result, the lamb industry set four goals as part of its roadmap. 

First, they looked to make American lamb a premier product every time. They also sought to promote lamb as a premier meat. 

In the production chain, the Roadmap noted that the industry should work to improve productivity to remain competitive. 

The final goal laid out in the Roadmap was to work together as a whole industry. 

“Words on a page only have meaning when they inspire action,” ALB commented. “We are happy to report that the Roadmap has spurred some measurable activity.”


Among the measurable goals that they have accomplished, ALB’s Implementation Committee developed a statement to encourage value-based pricing urging all packers to strive to increase grid-based pricing to 80 percent. 

ALB also approved a subsidy for three electronic grading machines to be installed in the industry’s three largest packing plants. 

“These will enable more accurate grading than human grading,” ALB said, “and they will provide the packers with extensive information about meat quality.”

Another committee, the Product Characteristic Committee, is also wrapping up its Lamb Quality Audit, which will be used to formulate recommendations to improve the quality and consistency of the specialty meat. 

“The Product Characteristic Committee also expects to make recommendations this fall to the industry at large on a definition of ‘lamb’ that is appropriate for a premium product,” ALB added. 

Industry improvement

The National Sheep Improvement Program’s re-launch efforts have also been successful, with increased enrollment of flocks, as well as increased interest in the program by commercial producers. 

As a response to the third goal – improvement of productivity – the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) committed an additional $500,000 over three years toward the effort. 

“A ‘Let’s Grow’ coordinator was hired in January 2015 to lead these efforts, and Round One grant proposal applications are being solicited to assist producer groups in approving productivity,” ALB mentioned. 

Because demand has been a major challenge for the industry, a committee aimed at solving demand challenges formed a Marketing Advisory Council. The council is composed of top executives in the marketing arena to provide advice to ALB on effectively promoting lamb.

ALB noted, “The Demand Creation Committee is also supporting efforts to develop desirable lamb products from mutton to increase the popularity of ewe meat and thereby improve producer profitability.”

Lastly, the Marketing Advisory Council has begun looking at providing greater collaboration between the industry regarding consumer communications. 

Next steps

“While this listing is impressive,” said ALB, “it only represents a few of the Roadmap-inspired actions being undertaken. Each effort is being carefully shepherded and is at its own stage of implementation.”

They continued, “As the efforts build momentum, their effectiveness will be definitely felt by producers.”

As ALB looks toward its next step, they have targeted aggressive implementation of ongoing initiatives as a top priority. 

At the same time, they have also introduced a new initiative to look at actions that can be taken to reduce volatility in lamb supply and price. 

“We will also be launching other innovative and inspired initiatives formulated by other Roadmap teams,” said ALB. 

“We’ll keep producers informed as our work together gains momentum, as new initiatives are unveiled and as the Roadmap continues to inspire and inform our efforts,” ALB commented. “We’re headed in the right direction.”

Saige Albert, managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup, compiled this article from the most recent update from the American Lamb Board. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) first appeared in the United States in the 1980s and has been rapidly growing in popularity. 

“In Wyoming, we have gone from no farmers’ markets to 42,” says Cole Ehmke, UW Extension Educator, “and from no CSAs to 19, all in the last 10 years.”

“Currently, demand for CSA shares in Wyoming outweighs the supply coming from Wyoming,” Ehmke continues. “People in many parts of Wyoming have limited access to fresh, high-quality food, and interest in CSAs is growing in all parts of the state. Thus, there is tremendous opportunity for the growth of a well-managed CSA as part of a business portfolio for Wyoming producers.”

How it works

The concept of a CSA is that the end consumer makes a direct connection with the producer of their food by becoming shareholders. 

At the beginning of the season shareholders pay the farmer or rancher for a portion of the crop raise, providing financial support and often labor during the growing period. Then, as the season progresses, the shareholders get a regular delivery of produce or meat. 

In many CSAs those shareholders help with projects on the property, go to communal dinners for all the shareholders and may even help plan or manage. 

Wyoming proudly supports many CSAs that offer produce, as well as several that sell sides, quarters, and individual cuts of beef, pork, chicken and lamb to consumers.

Meat CSAs 

A challenge that Wyoming producers are facing, according to Bridger Feuz, UW Extension Educator, is the lack of a USDA-inspected plant in Wyoming. 

Producers are still able to sell within the state, but different regulations have to be taken into consideration when crossing state lines. 

“A meat CSA would only need a USDA inspected plant if it were selling across borders,” Ehmke states. “Otherwise a state-inspected plant would be acceptable.”

“With a USDA-inspected processing plant in Wyoming, we would see more rapid growth with meat CSAs,” Feuz adds.

Although meat CSAs can be challenging, there are also many benefits that the producers can enjoy. These include payment upfront and less repetitive interaction with the public.

“With a CSA, producers avoid answering the same questions over and over again like you would encounter at a farmers’ market,” explains Ehmke. “A CSA gives them the luxury of only answering the questions a few time and get a long term relationship from it.”

Direct marketing

Direct marketing is another way that producers can market their product. The product can be sold locally or nationally with this plan and the consumer share is delivered all at once, rather than over a period of time with a CSA. 

With direct marketing, shares of an animal are sold before the animal is harvested, allowing them to be processed in any licensed facility. These are usually sold as quarters, halves or sides and whole sections of the animal. Customers can specify their processing preference, and the product has the opportunity to be shipped nationally. 

Direct marketing also allows the consumers to develop a relationship with the producer and see where their food is coming from.

“One of the best parts of doing this is getting to people the people that buy our meat,” says Cindy Goertz of Wyoming Pure, Natural Beef, LLC. “It is pretty fun to talk to the customer, over the phone or in person, and it is important that people as consumer know who is producing their product.”

Kelsey Tramp is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Angus breeders like Sydenstricker Genetics Manager Ben Eggers of Mexico, Mo., say the Certified Angus Beef  (CAB) brand’s impact and their ability to respond, grow in tandem with the record premiums paid. 

“In the earlier days of CAB we often heard, ‘Where’s the premium?’ I haven’t heard that in quite a while,” Eggers observes. “The value of superior carcass merit is well documented now, and many top commercial cattlemen have reaped the benefits. As that ‘pull through’ effect grows even stronger, I think we’ll see even more increase in beef demand as the average quality increases.”

At the calf level, the soaring premiums move past any perceived “black hide” advantages.

“The CAB premiums help explain the huge price spreads we’ve seen lately based on quality,” says Malta, Mont. Seedstock Producer Dave Hinman. “It’s been $20, $30 per hundredweight, or more, on the same weight cattle.”

The difference of nearly $200 per head shows great buyer confidence, he says. 

“The feeder couldn’t afford to pay that if he didn’t know a lot about the calves. They have to watch everything pretty close,” he continues.

Hinman’s bull customers do, too, and their solution is to find balance.

“We put all the numbers in our catalog, and they look at all of them,” he says. “They want it all, just like their next buyer, all the way to the people standing in line to be seated at a steakhouse. And people will pay to get what they want.”

Science, performance data and common sense used in concert can create those genetics. 

“But you can’t forget any one of those,” Hinman says.

Having grown up in the meat business, Dick Beck, manager of Three Trees Ranch in Sharpsburg, Ga., wonders why some cattlemen pay scant attention to beef quality potential. Sure, they’re concerned with fertility, fleshing ability and other maternal traits not easily measured, but that’s no reason to ignore the carcass side.

“The cowherd traits have a big economic impact but they’re not very heritable. Carcass traits are highly heritable, so it is easy to make progress or lose ground,” he notes. “Keep working on the cowherd, but why would you walk away from making progress on a trait that’s easily improved?”

Ability to produce premium beef can make an Angus bull worth at least $10,000 more than average, Beck notes, doing the math. 

“If you get 100 calves in his life and 40 of them grade Prime, that can add $8,000,” he says. “If 40 more make CAB, that could be another $3,000.” 

He says “commodity-minded” producers debate the ups and downs of the Choice-Select spread. “That doesn’t mean anything to us – if we’re not making at least Choice cattle, we’re not in the Angus business.”

Like Hinman, Beck says the most-demanded bulls are the ones that do it all, including quality grade.

“We’re finally to the point where we can design a system that produces premium beef every time if you do everything else right,” Beck says. “That’s exciting.”

Don Schiefelbein of Kimball, Minn. agrees. His family buys calves from their bull customers and finishes 20,000 head per year to sell on a grid.

“Making the cattle do 85 percent or 90 percent, even 100 percent, CAB was unheard of just five or six years ago,” he says. 

When they do, as a fair number of loads did last year, the breakeven equations go out the window. 

“Say you have two steers and one makes CAB and one doesn’t,” Schiefelbein narrates. “It costs nothing more for the one that earned the premium – it’s all extra dividend, added value built in. That’s why breakevens mean nothing when you try to factor in 80 percent CAB.”

When all calves are selling for record-high prices is “the perfect time for genetic upgrades,” he says. “Get your genetics in order to add value to your calves. It’s a sweet time to invest for a whole new level of prices.”

Some producers bought bulls for $2,500 or less in 2013, but in January, a set of heifers from the Schiefelbein feedlot grossed $2,500 per head on the rail, nearly all Prime or CAB. They were from a herd that had stacked high-marbling Angus genetics for three generations, the standing recommendation for all bull customers and one that can take decades to achieve across a herd.  

The market says it’s a goal worth pursuing.

This article is courtesy of Steve Suther at Certified Angus Beef.

Bedford – Over the last century, Americans have become increasingly re-moved from the production of their food. But one Lincoln County producer is working to change that through community supported agriculture, offering local, seasonal produce directly from their farm to the consumer.

Marion and DeeAnne Robinson run Robinson Family Farm and Ranch in Bedford. The fourth generation agriculture operation is housed on 110 acres. 

The Robinsons work with their members to produce like kale, collard greens, cauliflower, spinach, tomatoes, peppers, onions, summer squash and herbs, among other products. They also offer meat and egg shares. 

This concept of marketing directly from the farm to customers is known as community supported agriculture, or CSA.

The Robinsons are among a growing number of agriculture producers foregoing traditional markets in favor of participating in community supported agriculture. 

Essentially, CSA is a partnership between farmers and customers. Customers buy shares in a season’s produce, sharing the risk and rewards of harvest with the farmer. Offerings can include everything from vegetables and fruit to eggs, milk, beef or pork.


Marion Robinson started the operation after participating in the Wyoming agricultural leadership program, L.E.A.D. (Leadership, Education and Development). He had returned to Star Valley after working in the corporate sector out of state and was searching for a way to establish sustainability on a small acreage.

“I didn’t think I could earn a living in agriculture. There aren’t many truly large corporate businesses in Star Valley that needed my business skills. I believed in the traditional model of get big or get out and didn’t know how I could make a go of it as a small farmer,” says Marion. “The L.E.A.D. program helped open my eyes to the many different opportunities there are in agriculture if you’re willing to work hard and be creative.”

The Robinsons started their CSA program in 2006 with help from another producer with three acres of vegetables. That year, the farm provided produce for 14 members, with some excess vegetables sold at the Jackson farmer’s market. 

Today, Robinson Family Farm and Ranch has 40 members, about half of which are work share. Work share members pay for their shares by putting in three to five hours of work on the farm each week.

Marion says the work share option is win-win for the farm and his customers.

“I’m as motivated by affordability as by sustainability. The work share option provides the member with healthy fresh produce and our farm with some much-needed labor. Other folks choose a work share just to learn more about gardening and vegetable production.”

Extreme gardening

Gardening at 6,000 feet in elevation provides some challenges, but Marion says that fact alone hasn’t deterred him. He uses greenhouses and a little ingenuity to operate almost year-round. 

Marion starts some seeds indoors shortly after the first of the year, and then transfers the seedlings outdoors in the later months. He says he overlaps his younger, hot crops with larger, more established cold crops to get a jumpstart on growth and to maximize space. 

As a result, Robinson Family Farm and Ranch is able to offer its customers five months worth of vegetables – from June through October. 

The final offering is a bulk pickup of crops that store well, such as potatoes, carrots and cabbage.

“We often refer to what we do as ‘extreme gardening,’” Marion explains. “I’ve come to embrace the harsh climate. We don’t have as many pest issues, and our season is never too hot for cold crops like peas or lettuce like it can be in Utah or Idaho. It’s certainly labor intensive in summer, but we enjoy our slower months.”

Wider markets

In addition to distributing products directly to members, Marion sells produce at both the Star Valley and Jackson farmers’ markets. When the harvest allows, he also sells to Jackson grocery stores and area restaurants. Robinson Family Farm and Ranch has also worked with area schools to provide healthy snacks to school kids.

Robinson Family Farm and Ranch sells chemical-free produce, grass-fed beef and eggs from pastured poultry. Marion can’t market his products as organic, because he hasn’t completed all the steps to be certified organic officially, which is a lengthy and intensive process. Instead, he offers what he calls customer certification.

“My niche market is a health motivated market. The next best thing to growing the produce yourself is a community supported agriculture operation,” Marion says. “We are customer certified. We open our doors to our customers to examine our processes, equipment and methods. The best guarantee we can give to someone is to let them participate in the growing process side-by-side with us.”

Community oriented

Marion says he really enjoys the community aspect of community supported agriculture.

“It’s been rewarding to meet and get to know our members and teach farming to our work shares. We get to rub shoulders with some really neat people through our business. We’ve gotten to know people in our area, and even people from Poland, Israel and Germany,” he explains.

“I really like how community supported agriculture puts the farm back in the community and puts the community back in the farm,” Marion continues.

What started as a dream more than six years ago is now a thriving, sustainable business for Marion.

“My whole value system has changed through agriculture. I feel more secure financially than I ever have, even working in corporate America,” he says. “Our farming model lets us control the inputs to our farm and helps make us self-reliant and sustainable, and gives me a sense of security and pride I hadn’t known before.”

For more information on the Robinson Family Farm and Ranch, contact them at 307-880-7337. Teresa Milner is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.