Farmer tends to a new customer baseby Jeff Jones, Minnesota Public Radio
Pelican Rapids is still basically a farming community. But a decade-and-a-half of immigration has changed the town a lot. That's not just clear on Main Street, If you drive a few miles out of town, life is even different on the farm.
Pelican Rapids, Minn. — It's a job title you don't see on the second line of many business cards these days...but Glen Larson is a shepherd.
On 40 acres of rolling green hills, seven miles outside Pelican Rapids, Larson keeps about 100 sheep, almost all ewes. Every spring, the size of his flock triples.
"Most of them lamb right out here on the ground and take care of themselves. Then I go out there and dock the tails and castrate them and so forth, mark them. And make sure everyone's got something to eat -- food, milk," Larson says.
Larson has owned the farm for 18 years now. These days, he and an old sheep dog named Katy are the only ones managing the 200 lambs and their mothers.
"Some are more forgetful than other ewes, just like people," he says. "Some are always forgetting where they put their lambs. And then they come running back 'Maaa, where's my baby? I forgot!' Then you give them a half an hour and, 'OK, now I remember.'"
The hills on Larson's farm, seven miles outside Pelican Rapids, make for poor cropland, but they're well-suited to raising sheep.
"These hills are so steep that a tractor would roll over and so forth," says Larson. "The other thing is that I can stand on one hill, and I can observe the whole pasture from that area."
Still, economic forces haven't always made that easy. For example, in 1993, the U.S. government ended sheep subsidies. That forced many farmers to sell their flocks, and added volatility to the market for lamb meat.
At about the same time, an immigrant influx was starting to change the face this rural town. And one day, change arrived in Larson's driveway.
"There was a carload of guys, maybe five or six. And they were saying something. I couldn't understand a word they were saying. Anyway, they pointed at the sheep and so forth," Larson recalls.
The visitors were Bosnians -- part of a growing group fleeing the Yugoslav civil war in the mid-'90s, and attracted by jobs at the West Central Turkey plant nearby. One day, Larson's lambs caught their eye, and a business relationship was born.
"We'd dicker with price by writing the price in the snow, since they didn't understand English and I didn't understand them. And we'd keep dickering as long as there was snow on the ground."
Glan Larson bought a Serbo-Croatian dictionary to help him communicate. His new customers promptly offered to buy it. He bought another, and quickly sold that one, too.
Irfan Beganovic was one of hundreds of immigrants who made his way to Larson's farm.
"In Bosnia, you know, they like to barbecue a lot of meat," says Beganovic.
Beganovic says when he first met Larson 10 years ago, words weren't worth much, but gestures helped him haggle his way to a deal.
"I show to him with my hands, shoulders, arms. He said his price, I told him my price. Which we do in my country, you know. I think he give to me a little cheaper because he'd never done that before," says Beganovic.
Lamb meat is by far the least popular red meat in the United States, but in a heavily Muslim country like Bosnia, it's a common meal -- and hard to come by in central Minnesota stores.
The newcomers looked to Glen Larson anytime they needed lamb for a party or religious celebration. Most would slaughter the meat themselves, but sometimes, Larson was a full-service butcher.
"It's something I didn't want to do. It's something I hated doing. But people would get into a bind and plead with me to do it, because they didn't know how to do it or something. And next thing you know, I'm butchering half of them," says Larson. "I just don't like to kill. It's that simple. Once it's killed, it's OK. You raise them from babies and then you have to slaughter them. It's kind of tough."
Over time, Glen Larson became a trusted source of information for his customers. They asked questions not answered in books or brochures.
"They were bewildered about all kinds of things. You know, about how the social structure works and different things like this," says Larson. "Some people wanted to know what the pecking order was with races in this country."
In return, the Bosnians told Larson about ethnic strife in their own country.
"I don't know how many people -- in the beginning, when they'd cut the throat on a lamb -- would tell me, 'Many people in my country died this way,'" says Larson. "It was hard for some of them. A few, still, would run and hide, because it reminds them of something and they just cannot possibly watch it."
Larson used to sell to meat processors in Fergus Falls and Fargo, but now he sells nearly all his lambs each year to immigrants -- and that's good business. Customers usually buy lambs younger and smaller than slaughterhouses, saving Larson money on feed. And selling directly lets him set his own prices, shielding him from the price fluctuations common to the U.S. lamb market.
But according to Glen Larson, the biggest benefits are not about money.
"I enjoy my work more, because it's just more interesting meeting new people and so forth as opposed to not meeting anybody. They're just different, and it makes life interesting," says Larson.
Glen Larson is about to leave the sheep business. He's recently married and is moving to South Dakota.
While some other farmers were initially reluctant to serve immigrants, Larson says that's changed in the 12 years since the first Bosnians arrived in his driveway. Now he knows there are plenty of other sheep farmers eager to supply lambs to Bosnians, Mexicans, Kurds and other new immigrant groups who now call this region home.
As for Irfan Beganovic, he says he'd like to make enough money to start his own Bosnian restaurant, and that lamb would be prominently featured on the menu.