Minnesota group finds niche with small Wagyu beef plant
CONGER, Minn. (AP) – Sometimes the best names are the simplest ones. Such is the case with Fellers Ranch, named after the five men (and their wives) who started their own company based off the Wagyu beef sold at Conger Meat Market.
That meat used to come from a rancher who lived in Laramie, Wyoming, and had previously worked with people in Iowa, at least according to Jeremy Johnson, president of Fellers Ranch.
"Up until spring of 2021, that rancher decided to get out of the business …" he said. "He decided to retire. He was 74 years old."
"We bought out the guy from Wyoming," said Ryan Merkouris, another one of the partners. "And then we've expanded it, and we just came up with the name 'Fellers' because it was a group of five guys that got together, all had the same vision."
That vision was to produce the best locally-raised Wagyu beef in the industry, the Albert Lea Tribune reported.
"We've got five people with different areas of expertise we'll say …" Merkouris said. "What intrigued me, in agriculture, farming now, you have to have something else to set you apart to be successful."
"There's not a lot of small, USDA-inspected meat plants, there's just not a lot of small ones like us," said Johnson, who also owns Conger Meat Market with his wife, Darcy.
In fact, it's Johnson's job to trace where every piece of meat he sells comes from. And that process of tagging where the meat comes from isn't possible at a big meat-processing plant.
"That's what the rancher from Wyoming wanted, he wanted to make sure he got all of his own steaks and (knew which) cow they were from," he said. "He wanted to know all that. We were able to to do it."
And because the farmer had another farm in Iowa, that made selling his product easier, especially considering there's now a farmer raising the Wagyu just outside of Conger.
"(For) a year and a half we custom-raised (Wagyu) for (the Wyoming farmer)," Merkouris said. "Started to learn about the Wagyu industry, the Wagyu breeding."
Because the cattle are fed for a longer period of time, feeding Wagyu is not exactly the same as feeding regular, conventional feedlot cattle.
"We feed them a strict diet that is fed at exact weight ranges for the cattle … so they don't overgrow," he said.
Merkouris, who said he hadn't known anything about Wagyu until he started contract-feeding, also keeps them on a strict diet, limiting when they eat to twice daily. That, in turn, limits how fast they grow, and more time helps cattle develop intramuscular marbling.
Raising Wagyu takes longer than with other cattle, as this particular type of beef takes 30 months before processing, making the cattle older than typical market meat.
"We take great care in feeding them slower and growing them slower to get all the fine marblings," Johnson said.
That was a surprise to Merkouris when he first started working as a contractor.
He was also surprised with "the time, how long it takes them and how slow they are and … they're very calm," he said. "Their attitude or demeanor is different than regular cattle. They're very… laid back. They're not as high-strung, so it makes it a lot easier."
Since April, Johnson and his partners — Merkouris, Jay Johnson, Henry Savelkoul and Don Savelkoul — have taken over the business and process the Wagyu every week, selling to restaurants and other meat markets.
"He (the Wyoming farmer) was getting out of the business and Conger Meat Market really wanted to stay in the business, so we formed a group to buy the cattle and keep raising them," Johnson said.
Doing this is something both Johnson and Merkouris take pride in.
"We're a Minnesota company," Johnson said. "We're proud of that. The cattle are Minnesota, the process is Minnesota, we're all from Minnesota."
Currently, Fellers Ranch sells Wagyu locally to Trumble's 2.0, Trails' Travel Center, Buckley's Bar and Grill in Walters and Torey's Restaurant and Bar in Owatonna. The Wagyu is also sold in the Twin Cities, where — according to Johnson — the majority of the beef is sold.
"Wagyu beef, in the last year to two years, has become pretty popular in the restaurant industry," Merkouris said.
According to Merkouris, that's because the beef is rich in monosaturated fatty acids and contains essential amino acids, including omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. And those fatty acids are believed to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and Alzheimer's.
According to Johnson, Wagyu (the Japanese word for cow) is a niche market, meaning there's a higher premium when sold.
"We're all big fans of eating it," Johnson said.
Another reason they sell it: the niche market.
"We're not out there trying to sell the same beef product that everybody else in the country is selling," he said. "We can differentiate ourselves."
That popularity has helped the company expand, and the company's first employee is scheduled to start March 1.
"Wagyu is becoming bigger and bigger every year in the US," he said.
And while Johnson is learning more about the agricultural side of the business, Merkouris is learning more about business.
"I've learned more on the sales side and how the meat is cut, the different cuts of meat and all the different ways that we can use the beef to sell and how all the different cuts are used in the hospitality/restaurant industry, barbecue industry," he said. "I've learned a lot more how to use pretty much everything of the cattle to sell."
Merkouris, who along with his wife grew up around farming outside Alden, also hopes the partnership helps get his son Caleb into the business. Caleb and his sister, Ellen, show cattle in 4-H at the jackpot level. Caleb has been showing dairy steer for over 10 years and beef cattle for three. Ellen has shown dairy steer for six years and beef for three.