USDA grant helps set up website, establish presence on QVC
By JODI HAUSEN
BELGRADE, Mont. (AP) -- Rick Woienski has a small problem. But it's a problem many business owners would relish.
The rancher, whose cattle graze on property north of Belgrade, has had to turn down potential customers because he couldn't meet the demand, he said recently, standing beside a pen of his unique black cows. His Montana Wagyu beef -- the same breed as Japanese Kobe -- is that popular.
Now, thanks in part to a USDA grant, Woienski is branching out to sell directly to customers who want to eat his unique steaks and burgers at home.
When Woienski, a 54-year-old former U.S. Marine, learned of the $49,999 award in June, he let out a thunderous "Oooh rah," he said, adding he hoped he didn't damage the ear of the man on the other end of the phone.
The USDA's Value-Added Producer grant is aimed at ranchers and farmers who want to market directly to customers. The money can be used to develop marketing strategies such as a website, according to the USDA.
Woienski just launched his website last month. But he has already made a big splash on the QVC network, he said. During his first appearance, he sold 16,000 Wagyu beef burgers in less than four minutes. That's about 5,000 pounds of beef, he said.
Woienski, who hails from Newark, N.J., moved to the Gallatin Valley in 1978 to study physical education at Montana State University. While in college, he worked as a ranch hand to make a little money.
He fell in love with Montana and the ranching lifestyle -- the hard work, fresh air and heartiness of the men he worked alongside, he said.
"I was so impressed with these guys," he said. "I knew that was what I wanted to do."
In recent years, he has focused on Wagyu beef, which he sells to local restaurants, such as Montana Aleworks, Weebee's Cafe and Seven Sushi.
His cows are hybrids of Wagyu and Black Angus and yield the "best of both breeds," he said. "The rich, buttery taste of Wagyu with the texture of Angus."
It is sometimes compared to Kobe beef, but Kobe beef can only be raised in a specific region of Japan.
Yet Wagyu beef, like Kobe, has more fat than the meat that typically comes from Montana cattle.
"It's not for the neophyte," he said, laughing. "But people don't go to a restaurant to eat healthy. They go to be decadent, to splurge, to have a good time. That's our market and we don't apologize for that."
He has also developed a unique ranching model. Although his bovines graze on 150 acres, he only owns 40 of them. The remainder he leases from neighbors.
He has "handshake" agreements with other ranching operations for breeding work. The meat is processed at companies in Butte and Columbus, and he travels to the plants when he sends his cattle in and works alongside the processors.
Because much of the work is done in other "family-owned, Montana" companies, Woienski has minimal overhead costs, he said.
"I don't own everything, but I control everything," he said.
Though Montana Wagyu has no employees, Woienski is proud to note that his work has created two jobs at the Butte facility. That's the aim of the USDA grant.
"This is exactly the type of project we want to support" with the grant program, Matthew Jones, Montana USDA Rural Development director, said in a written statement. "Montana Wagyu takes Montana-grown product and makes that top-quality product available to consumers around the nation and the world. We can support a small business and help cycle more dollars into the local community with this small investment."
It hasn't been easy, Woienski said. The past two years have been stressful.
The grant has helped a lot. In addition to developing the website, he's using the money to travel to Philadelphia for more appearances on QVC and to host a booth at a catering and chef's convention in Las Vegas.
"The reality is unless you inherited a ranch, it's nearly impossible to start one," he said. "We literally have bet the ranch on this."
The wager appears to be paying off. Since starting the company in 2008, sales have quadrupled, Woienski said.