Morgan Valley lamb returns with new owner, more sources

Morgan Valley Lamb » New owner works to build on brand’s good name.

By HEATHER MAY | The Salt Lake Tribune
First Published Mar 26 2013 07:51 am • Last Updated May 31 2013 11:37 pm

If Wes Crandall didn’t like to eat lamb roast and stew, the popular Morgan Valley label might still be retired.

Lucky for fans of the Utah brand, lamb equals comfort food for the 27-year-old Springville businessman.

Crandall recently bought the Morgan Valley Lamb name from founders Jamie and Linda Gillmor, who in turn are helping him rebuild the customer base for the local, naturally-raised springtime staple.

Lamb consumption doubles during the spring, when it is often the star of Easter and Passover meals, according to the American Lamb Board. And Utah is one of the nation’s top sheep producers with 300,000 head.

During a recent visit to a Mapleton sheep ranch, Crandall explained why he bought the Morgan Valley label and where it’s headed.

“It’s a quality lamb product, it’s local, it’s all natural,” he said as five-day old lambs bleated nearby. The Gillmor’s “had a very good customer base and had a great following. We’re just trying to continue what Jamie started and let people know that we’re back and running.”

Shutting down • After 12 years marketing Morgan Valley Lamb, the Gillmors announced last May they was shutting down because family members wanted to sell the grazing lands. Crandall bought the label in August. But those few months in between were long enough to send some buyers looking for other lamb sources.

While Morgan Valley lamb can be found in smaller markets, it lost its first customer, Harmons Grocery, and Crandall is trying to get back on the local chain’s shelves.

Crandall said he sells about 30 lambs a week, about 20 less than what Gillmor was doing.

But Gillmor said he had struggled to keep up supply when he was in charge.

“We’d run out of rack of lamb and loins and shanks, all the stuff depending on the time of year. At Easter we’d run out of legs,” he said.

Gillmor was mainly selling his own lambs to markets and restaurants. Crandall, who doesn’t raise sheep, now draws from 20 sheep ranchers across the state. The sources are both large and small, with some raising 5,000 head and other raising just five.

Utah restaurant chefs have always been big supporters of Morgan Valley products. Having more sources means “the quality, consistency and availability have increased dramatically,” Bambara’s executive chef Nathan Powers wrote in an e-mail.

Ethan Lappe, owner and chef of Caffe Niche in Salt Lake City, prefers Morgan Valley because it’s “exceedingly fresh” and less gamey than New Zealand lamb — another sheep-producing powerhouse.

Restaurant owner Scott Evans uses Morgan’s lamb belly and ground lamb at Finca and lamb racks at Pago. “It really fits our farm to table model,” he wrote.

And Billy Sotelo, executive chef at Oasis Cafe and Faustina, said Crandall created a special sausage specifically for his Salt Lake City restaurants.

High standards • While the supply is bigger, the standards remain the same. The animals are raised without the use of added hormones or steroids, Crandall explained during his visit to Whiting and Warren Farms in Mapleton, where five-day old lambs were running in one part of the farm and 6- to 10-month olds were fattening up on corn and alfalfa in another.

Once the lambs are 140 pounds, they’re ready to be processed and sent to stores and restaurants.

“If they’re too small, your French rack ends up being the size of a quarter, where our restaurants like it a little bit bigger,” Crandall said. “Then again, if it gets too big, it’s too much for the restaurants and they don’t like that either.”

Working with restaurants and local markets is relatively new to Crandall, who graduated from Utah State University with a degree in business finance and wasn’t sure he would join his family business, Crandall Farms. The cattle ranch has been in his family for 100 years, mainly raising calves through the summer and selling them to producers who fatten the animals on grain for large beef companies.

Crandall Farms began raising grass-fed beef a decade ago and selling some of it to family and friends. Two years ago — hoping to bring it to a larger audience— Crandall created the Jones Creek Beef, named for the waterway at the family’s Wyoming ranch. He said it’s sold in some of the same places as Morgan Valley Lamb (see box), along with select Walmarts.

“Everybody’s doing that at the farmers markets —they’re trying to get a little bit more for their product so they can sustain their family a little bit better,” he said. “Plus, it helps the consumers who want to feel like they have a connection to the food that they’re eating, which I think more and more people are looking for.”

Crandall is also investigating if there is a local market for buffalo.

For now, he’s dreaming of lamb.

“I’m sure Easter Sunday we’ll be eating a leg of lamb, along with quite a few other people.”