By TIM TESCONI
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Grass-fed lambs from coastal ranches are making their way to Bay Area restaurants through a new marketing program called Pozzi Lamb Growers of Marin and Sonoma. The new program is a joint effort by Bodega sheep rancher Joe Pozzi and Sonoma Direct, a wholesale meat company owned by Ritz and Margo Guggiana, who also own Ritz Foods in Santa Rosa. The local lambs are from Pozzi's ranch and 10 other ranches on the Sonoma-Marin coast, where sheep ranching has been a tradition for more than 100 years.
But sheep ranching in the two counties has been on a steep downhill slide for decades because of predator problems, low prices and the shrinking acreage available for grazing. Pozzi believes a good marketing program will help keep sheep grazing on coastal hills and perhaps even increase their numbers.
"This program is to create a more sustainable source of income so that sheep ranching can continue for many more generations on the coastal ranches in Sonoma and Marin counties," said Pozzi, 44, a third generation rancher. "The grazing land on the coast is ideal for sheep ranching and the perfect appellation for growing natural, grass-fed lamb."
The Pozzi lamb will be available only during harvest, which for coastal lambs is spring through summer. Sheep ranching was once a leading agricultural industry in Sonoma County, but that is no longer the case. In 1930, Sonoma County had 140,000 head of sheep. Today, according to county reports, there are 13,000 head of ewes. Last year, Sonoma County ranchers sold 19,000 lambs valued at $1.5 million.
Pozzi is paying ranchers $1.10 a pound for lambs, which is a 20-cent-per-pound premium over market price, amounting to about $24 more a head than if the lambs were sold through normal channels. Lambs are slaughtered at Superior Farms in Dixon and returned to Santa Rosa for processing at Sonoma Direct.
Pozzi and Sonoma Direct are cultivating new markets and not directly competing with Sonoma County's other branded lamb, CK Lamb, founded in 1984 by sheep rancher Bruce Campbell of Healdsburg. Campbell markets his upscale lamb throughout Northern California and to top chefs at restaurants from Las Vegas to New York City.
Marissa Guggiana, the Guggianas' daughter and president of Sonoma Direct, said the Pozzi lamb already is being sold in more than 40 restaurants, including Manzanita in Healdsburg and Santa Rosa's Fountaingrove Inn. She is working to get the local lamb in both Whole Foods and Trader Joe's stores. Guggiana said Whole Foods is now going through the approval process by evaluating the ranches that are producing lamb for the program.
Pozzi said aggressive marketing and branding will distinguish locally produced lamb from other lamb meat, including the Australian and New Zealand lamb dominating the market. Until now, most lambs from the North Coast went into the meat distribution chain, which means lambs from Tomales or Bodega ranches were as likely to be sold in Pasadena as Petaluma.
"This identifies the grower of the lambs so consumers know where their meat was raised. Increasingly, it's important for consumers to know the source of their food," Pozzi said. He started the new program because of his success with another niche company, Pure Grow Wool, that he founded several years ago. The company markets high-quality wool from Sonoma and Marin counties for natural bedding products.
Pozzi said niche marketing is a way to add value so lamb and wool
are not sold as commodities on the open market.
"It takes us from being price-takers to being price-setters," Pozzi said. Guggiana said the time is right for a program that puts a name on lamb from Sonoma and Marin counties. She said as the natural foods industry matures there is more emphasis on locally produced food. "Natural foods have moved from an emphasis on organic towards support of local farms and ranches," Guggiana said.
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