Lena’s Lamb, Franz Turkey Farms and Bluewater Beef
are Lambton County’s Your Local Meat Connection
A recent morning commute took me down winding country roads through endless pastures to an out-of-the-way farm in Lambton County. This was not your typical urban commute with start-and-stop traffic on packed roadways, but a rural meandering that reminded me how fortunate we are in this area to be surrounded by local agriculture. Coming from Kent County, travelling through the small towns of Kent Bridge, Eberts, and Tupperville, I wasn’t stopped by a single traffic light. The collection of country roads led me to Wilkesport, just outside Petrolia, 40 kilometres from Sarnia. Here I met a group of three independent farmers who reside within 10 kilometres of each other and have combined forces to supply a variety of high-quality meat direct to consumers in their community and beyond.
Your Local Meat Connection was a business initiative started three years ago by the owners of Lena’s Lamb, Franz Turkey Farms, and Bluewater Beef. Each farm runs independently but they made the savvy business decision to showcase their three types of meat as a Lambton County brand. They combined advertising, marketing, trade show fees, and administrative efforts to help the financial side of their businesses in a competitive industry. An internet presence at www.yourlocalmeatconnection.com acts as a portal to their individual websites. (It is more likely that a Google searcher would use “local meat” rather than “local turkey” or “local beef” so their services are found more readily).
Darlene Pettit and her husband Dave run Lena’s Lamb at their Wilkesport farm. Darlene decided on lamb as a type of livestock that she could handle easily on her own when needed and that could be fed with peas, oats, and corn from their own land. Knowing that lamb is tried more reluctantly than other meats by those unfamiliar with it, she wanted to capture people’s attention with a quality product. Darlene says, “I became a farmer to create the right product that comes from our farm. Customers decide if they want it based on quality. When you believe in your product and are comfortable with what is leaving the farm, taste is where it’s at; you can’t go wrong with good tasting meat.” She generally sees more interest in lamb in urban areas, where it is often available at fine dining restaurants. She also point out that lamb is “a naturally healthy alternative” to provide variety in home-cooked meals.
Bluewater Beef is a combination of two family farms near Bridgen. Ralph Eyre was raised on a dairy farm and foresaw a profitable business from selling freezer-ready beef products at farmers’ markets. This idea took off when he and his wife Brenda joined another farming family, Murray and Sandi Shaw, to create Bluewater Beef. The business model was aimed at scaling down the traditional larger sides of beef to a more manageable package program, geared around cost, cooking preference, and time of year. For instance, a summer BBQ package includes grilling steaks, burgers, and ground beef. The goal is to produce a quality product with strict feeding and breeding methods across both farms to maintain a consistent Bluewater Beef brand.
While Lena’s Lamb and Bluewater Beef have both been in business for five years, Franz Turkey Farms has been in the family for over fifty years. Nikolaus Franz started the business in 1960 and his son, Gary, took over along with his wife, Theresa, who married into the family and became an integral part of the business right away. The third generation (daughters, Monika, Rachel, and Erika) is now heavily involved in the operations. Even the fourth generation, Theresa and Gary’s young grandchildren, ages 1 to 5, like to help check the barns. In fact, all three businesses in Your Local Meat Connection are truly family affairs, with the children pitching in with part-time help where they can. At Bluewater Beef, the Eyre’s have three teen-aged children and the Shaw’s have four. At Lena’s Lamb, the three younger Pettit children provide assistance by tending to the crops that feed the animals.
Expanding a Niche Market
The three busi-nesses each draw customers to their farms in different ways. Lena’s Lamb sells from the farm and, given the unique nature of their livestock, often get requests for certain types of lambs. The requests may not coincide with the type of farm that Darlene runs, as her focus is on three particular breeds — Suffolk, Texel, and Dorset. By raising them in ways to nurture the quality she is looking for in an end product, she chooses the best in each breed when the time is right. Sticking to this process is converting people to its great taste. In recent statistics, only 1% of farmers in Lambton are sheep farmers. Darlene does what she can to spread the word by instructing her customers through direct marketing and posting cooking tips and recipes on the Lena’s Lamb website.
While beef and turkey are not such small portions of the industry, Bluewater Beef and Franz Turkey Farms are carving out niches of their own. Ralph and his associates have held on-farm open houses to entertain and educate customers about their products. Consumers are sometimes far removed from agricultural realities and not informed enough to make the best purchasing decisions, but they can learn a lot when visiting the farm directly. Franz Turkey Farms draws customers by having a retail store on the farm in Petrolia, selling frozen turkey year round and fresh ones during the main holiday seasons. The turkeys are all processed at an on-site plant. Other products like turkey pies and sausages join the whole birds in the store freezers.
Chefs have taken notice of these quality products. All three are featured at Bridges restaurant in Sarnia. Chef Phil Washington not only cooks with the products, but identifies the sources in “A Taste of Ontario” menu. The menu descriptions — Bluewater Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio, Franz Turkey Club Sandwich, and Lena’s Lamb Chops — make it clear where the proteins come from, providing an excellent marketing strategy to highlight that great tasting local meat can be enjoyed as a professionally prepared meal. The three farmers also have a combined booth at the annual Fusion Food & Wine Show in Sarnia, where local chefs showcase their products in a variety of dishes.
Two of the three meats make their way to London for retail consumption: Lena’s Lamb is sold through Saucy Meats & So Much More at the Western Fair Farmers’ Market, and Franz Turkeys can be found at Sunripe Markets. The bulk of beef sales are through the website, with most orders hand-delivered to the customers. Restaurant orders and market sales round out the rest of their transactions. The majority of market sales occur at the Petrolia Farmers’ Market where all three work together on Saturdays in the summer months.
The nexus these farmers have made with each other through Your Local Meat Connection has enhanced each of their businesses and created an extended family of farmers, allowing them to connect in turn with customers through farmers’ markets, restaurants, and home cooking. My drive home that day was a mirror image of the drive there: I passed through the same farmland with similar, but now more enlightened thoughts about how the land is a connection to our food. And it is farming families like these that bridge the distance between the food and consumers.
DARIN COOK works and plays in Chatham-Kent and is a regular contributor to eatdrink.