SACRAMENTO — Calling herself "a little garden-variety farm girl who believes in my product," Anne Rominger is trying to increase U.S. exports to Japan in a small way.
Her specialty is baby lamb meat, considered a delicacy by French chefs--and soon to be considered a delicacy in Japan if her efforts succeed. Those efforts were aided recently when she was awarded $20,000 in grants from California's new Export Trade Assistance program to try to develop a Japanese market for her baby lambs.
Representatives of large firms often express frustration at the complexities of trying to wend their way through the Japanese system, but Rominger is negotiating with potential Japanese customers directly.
"I just don't know any better," she says. "I don't have enough sense to know it can't be done."
Actually, she learned that it can be done from Roger Bacigaluppi, head of the California Almond Growers Exchange. Rominger, who also has an almond orchard, heard Bacigaluppi describe how a market for Blue Diamond almonds was developed in Japan.
"The Japanese look for a quality product, and they don't mind paying for it," she said in an interview. "Their per-capita income is greater than ours, and they eat small portions."
All of that fit perfectly with her baby lambs, which are sent to market at the tender age of five months.
"The lamb has to be by its mother's side and has to be fed only native grasses, no artificial feeds," Rominger explained. "I don't use medication (on the lambs), and they can't be confined, so they develop nice and tender."
Since she started the business 15 years ago, Rominger has sold most of the lamb to French restaurants, mainly on the West Coast. "Just the elite restaurants," she said, "because this is just the very best lamb. . . . I don't pretend to know the difference that well, but French chefs certainly do."
Her domestic business has grown big enough that she cannot supply all her customers from the 1,000-sheep herd she has on a ranch at Esparto, near Woodland in the Sacramento Valley. Consequently, she buys baby lambs "that meet my requirements" from sheepherders in the San Joaquin Valley, Idaho and Utah.
Rominger's own lambs are commercial white-faced ewes crossed with either Suffolk or Hampshire rams.
Her background is not typical for a farming entrepreneur. She was born in San Francisco, was sent to finishing school in Switzerland and was a French major at UC Berkeley.
But she took to farming and loves it because "I do not fit well in a sophisticated environment."