One of our customers recently asked us that very question, which is an excellent one. Here is the story!
There are five partners in Fellers Ranch, and we all have deep roots in agriculture and livestock production. However, our venture into Wagyu beef is much more recent.
It all started in 2019, with some general discussions between friends and relatives about the livestock industry. In particular, we were talking about the challenges faced by family farmers and small cattle ranchers. We recognized that one key problem is that the beef industry is controlled from the top down, by the big meat-packing plants. Competing with them on price was not a viable option, since they deal with such large quantities of livestock . . . and on cheap labor.
As we talked though, we came to the consensus that a farm-to-table beef business could do really well in the Midwest, if the owners found the right niche. We were confident that people in this area would be interested in purchasing healthy, locally raised, high-quality beef, if given the opportunity. However, we did not know whether we should raise certified angus on pasture, crossbreds finished in a small feedlot, or some other breed in some other manner.
Three of the five Fellers had been researching grass-fed options for the prior 3-4 years before we started focusing on Wagyu. We had heard little bits and pieces about Wagyu: we knew that it was very expensive, that it originated in Japan, and that was hard to find in Minnesota. We also knew that it was served primarily high-end restaurants in large, coastal region cities. Beyond that, we did not know much about Wagyu.
By coincidence, as we were researching grass-fed options, a herd of Wagyu was being custom raised by one of our friends (now a partner) for a Wyoming rancher. Those cattle were being processed at a nearby small-town butcher shop (owned by another friend, now partner). Despite being locally grown and processed, most of the finished Wagyu meat was being shipped to other parts of the country. We saw an opportunity for Wagyu raised in Minnesota to be processed, sold, and consumed in Minnesota. However, we still did not know enough about Wagyu to just jump into it.
With the Wagyu being raised down the road though, we were able to learn more about this non-typical (for this area) breed. More importantly, we were able to taste Wagyu for the first time ourselves . . . and it was excellent, by far the best steak we'd ever had!
By the time we tasted the Wagyu, we had tried a number of different versions of “grass fed” beef, and we found it to be very inconsistent, and seldom what could be called “really good”. Our interest in grass-fed beef was fading. However, the more we learned about Wagyu, the more interested we became.
Our real opportunity came when the Wyoming rancher said that wanted to retire, and that he was looking for someone to purchase his cattle. We were interested, but it would be a very expensive step -- and a change in direction -- for our group . . . . so we wanted to be certain that buying his Wagyu cattle would be a good decision.
Along with doing more research, we decided to do a number of taste tests. We wanted to find out if our astonishment with the tenderness and flavor of Wagyu would be shared by a larger group of people . . . and whether they’d be willing to pay more for it. (Wagyu cattle are much more expensive to buy, and they take twice as long to raise . . . so in order to survive as a business, anyone raising Wagyu has to charge significantly more than what is charged for meat from other breeds.)
In order to do the taste tests, we got our hands on a larger quantity of Wagyu meat, and we lined up variety of people to do sampling and grading. We used numerous different types of steak (all prepared the same way), with those taking part in the tests not knowing anything about the different samples. We did the same thing with hamburgers, beef jerky, and bratwurst. The meat came from Angus, Herford, crossbreeds, and Wagyu. It also came in various grades from various sources. We then ran a series of blind tests, on several different dates.
The results of our tests convinced us that Wagyu was our only route to go! The tests proved not only that everyone loved the Wagyu, but that they would also find that it is worth the extra cost. The Midwest may be far different than New York and Las Angeles, but we also deserve the best beef.
Having made our decision, we purchased two purebred Wagyu bulls and 128 steers and heifers in March and April of 2021. Soon thereafter, we were making our first sales to some of the finest restaurants in the Twin Cities. We’ve been expanding our business ever since!
The taste tests (and questioning participants about prices), did show that there were some consumers that ultimately would not choose Wagyu. However, those were only the individuals that said “low cost” was the primary or only factor in their steak purchasing decision-making. That is not the type of consumer that buys Wagyu anyway, so we were much more interested in the thoughts and opinions of beef connoisseurs . . . and they all loved the Wagyu.
The ultimate question we ask our customers is this: “Is flavor, marbling, and tenderness important to you?” If the answer is “yes”, we know that Fellers Ranch Wagyu is the perfect choice, especially for those occasions where ordinary beef just is not good enough! And, if we go by the ever-increasing demand for our Wagyu products, we know that our decision to pursue a Wagyu beef business was the right one!