Lamb Shoppe sign

CEDAR MILLS, Minn. — “What I love doing is sharing with others.”  Those eight words by Connie Karstens beautifully sum up her dedication to the growing number of customers who have discovered her unique farm store. Karstens is the proprietor of the Lamb Shoppe — a most delightful and surprising visit on busy State Highway 7 about 8 miles west of Hutchinson, Minn.

A prime example of a Lamb Shoppe customer is Carol Skay of Minnetonka, Minn. who was just leaving the Lamb Shoppe when The Land stopped in. A talkative lady, Skay was very willing to share commentary as to why she drives 60 miles from her Minnetonka home.  She related, “I had been buying my lamb chops at Lakeland Co-op — a local food store that handles farm fresh produce.  That is how I found out about the Lamb Shoppe which does monthly CSA offerings as well.  So I come here monthly for fresh lamb and other health items. Their lamb is just the best.  I adore lamb.”

 “Lamb is a love it or hate it sort of thing,” Skay went on to say. “Our family loves it.  I love its flavor and theirs is so good because it is all grass fed.  It’s not too strong.  Connie’s husband has some posts online explaining why the grass-fed lambs have a different flavor and texture. It’s sweet, yet has a little more taste than does beef.  But when I’m out here I also get some of their beef which makes wonderful hamburgers.”

So why did this Twin Cities housewife become such a discriminating food shopper?  Skay simply responded, “I love to cook and I love to eat. To me, every day should have a meal where you can exclaim, ‘wow — that was so good!’  My favorite is when you have ingredients so good and so high quality that you don’t need to do anything fancy to enhance the flavor. That’s why I come out here once a month. I’ve been doing this more than a year … plus it’s a leisurely drive that keeps me in touch with the different chapters of Mother Nature too!”

Providing fresh, grass-fed lamb chops originated because growing requests of friends and neighbors finally convinced the Karstens to start selling lamb in 1986. They opened their “lamb chop” store in 1997.  Husband Doug grew up a sheep farmer and even got into sheep shearing competitions — winning state, national and even international titles. He has competed in various world countries.  When time permits, he still competes and teaches sheep shearing.

 “People would see our sheep grazing as they drove along our highway,” Connie said. “Some would stop and inquire, ‘Can I buy some of your lamb chops?’.  We got to thinking, why not consider this as an opportunity? But selling meat requires USDA inspections. So Doug and I took some training on how to go about this new vocation.

“We started just selling lamb; then added beef, chicken and fresh turkeys for the Thanksgiving season. It just kept expanding. The healthy food idea was also just starting.  We soon ran out of space so we had to build our food store. It’s 34 feet by 36 feet with an upstairs for classroom teaching, etc.  New ideas, new ambitions kept surfacing.  I went back to school to learn more about health and fitness. Now I do wellness consultations classes upstairs above the food store.  I studied holistic nutrition. I also studied herbal medicine and we now sell those products also.”

In the back yard behind their attractive food shop is what Connie calls her “wellness garden.”  It includes a variety of medicinal herbs. “We planted things our ancestors used thousands of years ago. They used these special nature-grown plants to balance their bodies when things were out of balance.  I like these old traditional gifts of nature for different preparations; special teas.”

She studied herbal medicine for six years in Minneapolis.  “The challenge with herbal medicine is locating good instructors.  After six years of study, I did 18 months of apprenticeship training in Minneapolis. I started by just helping family and friends, but word travels. Today, I see clients for wellness consultations from the entire state — especially the metro area and Rochester, plus local folks.  Part of this wellness trend I think is the growing discontent with prescription medicines.”

As you might expect, attendance at her wellness classes favors the 50-plus age category.  “But I am also aware of younger mothers interested in having healthy families,” Karstens added. “Women take my classes because they want to nurture their families. Yes, I’m certain its part of that ‘motherhood’ complex, but husbands and dads can benefit from this same culture.”

Right now she is doing a 9-month herbal class which has 25 students. In May she hosted a ‘herb walk’  and had 125 people strolling her gardens and wooded areas with Connie identifying the different plants and the healing properties of each — plus which are wild but safe for herbal consumption or as a taste treats with salads. She loves teaching and her evening classes cost in the $20 range.  Workshops are higher because of extra time and materials needed.

Is Karstens concerned about organic fraud?  She agrees more consumers want to know what they are buying — organic or GMO foods. The Lamb Shoppe is subject to unannounced U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections and she’s okay with this.  “Food safety is always a special priority,” she explained. “Our farmers are providing food for our nation plus millions more. And I know food processors do lots of research and testing when developing new foods. Honesty in this entire food chain, from farmer to processor to retailer to consumer, is vital. That is why I think it’s important to better understand the amazing work of our farmers.”

Perhaps that is why the Lamb Shoppe has so many visitors. Checking the assortment of grass-fed meats and other health foods gets combined with a better understanding how it’s done. “Yes, we get questions about ag chemicals,” Karstens said. “We explain they are needed to control crop diseases and stubborn weeds. Respecting each other is the bottom line.”

Connie is a healthy 57 and matter-of-fact about physical fitness. “My daily workouts are simply doing what needs to be done each day in our business and farm living.  When you’re a farmer, you don’t need to go to a health club.”