03 Nov Visiting the Jacobsen Ranch
A Sheep Industry Story
As you wander through the Merced Farmers’ Market in Central California, you’ll find yourself immersed in local foods of every color and flavor. Tomatoes to grapes, snap peas to fresh-picked lemons, they’re all here. And the sweet smells hang in the warm air. You could even find a face painter, if you’re feeling so inclined.
Just about every Saturday, you’ll also find Lesanne Jacobsen of Jacobsen Ranch selling premium lamb. With a quick smile and contagious enthusiasm for her work, she doesn’t just sell to her customers, but engages with them. In fact, many have frequented her corner of the farmers’ market for years and years, evolving from customer to friend. It’s a relationship built on trust – a hard thing to find in the food industry these days. The expanse between where our food comes from and the consumer is growing ever-wider, making any “trust” we do feel a blind one at best.
For Lesanne, it’s important that her customers know her, her family, and know that their animals are raised with care. And some even know her home. By appointment, you can come visit the property and see the meticulous operation for yourself.
Jacobsen Ranch offers a “perfect country jaunt” from the city, as Lesanne says, just about 45 minutes north of Fresno in the agriculturally rich San Joaquin valley. It’s picturesque and orderly, surrounded by lush, irrigated fields. Lesanne, her husband Richard, and their son Cody, each contribute a specific skill set. While their shared focus is on Seedstock Genetic Sheep, breeding award-winning animals under Richard and Cody’s oversight, Lesanne focuses on marketing the sheep that aren’t eligible for showing. Regardless of eligibility, however, every animal is fed and cared for with the same high standards.
Believe it or not, Lesanne’s first love was not sheep. She has Richard to blame for that. She started out as an Animal Science major at Fresno State, with an emphasis on Animal Nutrition. She had a love for dairy cows, and her general career direction seemed clear. Until, that is, another kind of love came along. Lesanne met and married Richard, who just happened to be a 4th-generation sheep rancher. They started ranching together in 1982 and never looked back. Richard taught Agriculture at the local high school, leaving Lesanne in charge of the day-to-day care and operations, and then by the afternoon the two of them would manage the rest of the upkeep and care.
The first few decades of their work were less focused on processing the lambs and meat sales, and more on breeding purebred show animals. This level of care, plus a controlled diet, did make for superior meat quality, but it wasn’t a priority until Lesanne had a meaningful conversation with Chuck the butcher while shopping at a large retailer. All of the lamb they carried was imported: high-priced and lower quality. Plus, none of it supported the local ranching industry in the Central Valley. Chuck encouraged Lesanne to start processing and direct marketing their own product, right from Jacobsen Ranch. And so, she did.
Today, Lesanne and Richard still breed and sell their show animals, but they also have dedicated a much larger portion of their operation to processing and selling lamb products. Not only do they sell through farmers’ markets, but they also are building relationships and in-roads with restaurants that share a commitment to locally sourced food. Lesanne’s son would like to open the door to more online sales as well, but she isn’t ready to take that leap just yet.
“I prefer face-to-face interaction with my customers,” she says, adding with a smile: “I like to talk.”
Even through more traditional, grassroots marketing channels, her clientele is continuing to grow in both number and diversity. From college professors to foodies, the demand is strong.
Unfortunately, however, the pastures aren’t all sunny. A shortage of USDA-approved processing facilities is making it harder and harder to harvest the sheep. Not many are open to the general public, accessible, or willing to work with smaller operations like Lesanne’s. Superior Farms, for example, provided the initial opportunity to harvest and fabricate their product – Lesanne expresses nothing but gratitude for their services and encouragement. They still do provide the harvesting help that Jacobsen Ranch needs, but the fabrication is now offered at a different facility in Santa Rosa, adding another hour-and-a-half drive each way.
There is also a lot of misinformation about the lamb industry. Lesanne and her family are not only ranchers, but also advocates and gentle educators. They take every opportunity they can to share the story of how operations like theirs are doing it differently, doing it better, and offer a humane alternative to the massive facilities that import their products.
“Once they taste our meat,” Lesanne says, “they understand the difference.”
That’s also why Jacobsen Ranch has joined with California Lamb, expanding not only the reach of their product, but also their message. Locally sourced food is more ethical and sustainable, not to mention delicious.
Lesanne and Richard invite you to learn more about their ranch on their website, visit their Facebook or Instagram social media accounts, or to schedule a time to see Jacobsen Ranch for yourself. You’ll be glad you made the trip, especially if you leave with your next dinner.