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Guest Viepoint

Monday, December 20, 2004

Where's the beef? Iowa...

Sometimes modesty isn't the best policy.

As Iowans we are an awful lot like the comely girl who drapes herself in baggy sweaters and corduroys only to lose her beau to a less-refined lass in a mini.

We have the goods. But we seem intent on assembly-line thinking - a hard

day's work equals a paycheck and three squares.

Which it should. Only it doesn't anymore.

For some reasons where we tend to demur others spy opportunities.

An area of great promise, a potentially explosive-growth sector, one in which we have both the product and talent, is the specialty-meats business.

An article in this month's Money magazine chronicles the burgeoning market for the highest-quality of meats sold by notable organizations like Omaha Steaks.

Omaha is the Coca-Cola of the industry, but other such businesses abound - and they are being run in places like New York City, Chicago and Oakland, Calif.

For the discerning meat eater, the dinner-party set in the Hamptons of Long Island or other tony spots on the coasts on down to those of more modest

incomes who just love steaks and chops, "a handful of well-established mail-order vendors can do considerably better for you," reports Money magazine.

Gene Wiese, a highly respected cattleman with Wiese & Sons Hereford Breeders in Manning, said in an interview that he sees no end to the trend. In fact, Wiese rattled off the names of some of the top mail-order meat vendors in the Money article, including Niman Ranch

(nimanranch.com), an Oakland, Calif., company.

Wiese said he believes there are opportunities for northwest Iowa cattlemen and hog producers to get into the game, to brand-name top- notch local beef and pork, and sell it at premium prices - over the Internet and

through the mail as well as with other more traditional means of transport -

to what Wiese referred to as the "white linen" crowd.

"We should be doing this," Wiese said. "People can dream about this idea. To

have enough money to launch it and do it right is probably the thing that

stops people."

In all of this, Iowa starts in a favorable spot, with an already established reputation, internationally, for some of the best beef and pork known to mankind.

"With that trend in place there is room and Iowa still has a reputation for

producing some of the best beef that's possible to produce," Wiese said.

Same for pork, he added.

This beef and pork, with the right marketing, some real hard-nosed

promotion, could develop a following - and create a major new value-added

industry here, Wiese believes.

"You're really on to something," he said. "You don't necessarily need to

point to the millionaires (as customers). It still has to be affordable."

Money magazine ranks Chicago's Allen Bros (allenbrothers.com) and New York's Lobels (lobels.com) as some of the top meat vendors. Both operations pull in about $180 for four 16-ounce dry-aged strip steaks, which are shipped

overnight or in a few days. Niman Ranch also gets high marks.

"Just make sure to check the package carefully," says Money magazine. "This

stuff is so good the FedEx guy might keep a pork chop for himself."

To be clear, these vendors market a good deal to top restaurants, but they

also sell to individuals as well.

Omaha Steaks started its mail-order business in 1952.

Locally, Wiese said several approaches could work to turn Carroll County

beef and pork into a must-have product for foodies.

It is possible to track livestock through larger packing houses for initial

processing and then get the beef or pork to smaller purveyors in the area to handle the specialty cuts.

Then there would be the deal-making or breaking elements of marketing the

Carroll County brand name and organizing shipping.

All of this would provide income to existing producers and add new skilled

positions and high-paying careers in the area.

Moreover, the Iowa Values Fund and other state economic-development programs were created specifically to rev entrepreneurial engines, to promote

promising ventures like this.

"Yes, there is an opportunity," Wiese said.

* Doug Burns is a columnist for the Carroll Daily Times Herald, and contributes to the Pilot-Tribune