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Published August 09, 2010, 08:08 AM

S.D. ranch goes grass-fed, now embraces agritourism

EDGEMONT (AP) — Edgemont-area rancher Mark Hollenbeck is capitalizing on two agricultural trends at once.
He started his Sunrise Ranch five years ago, looking to include hunting as agritourism.
But today, the six-bedroom hunting lodge he built houses vacationers who don’t want to shoot their dinner. Instead, they want to learn about Sunrise’s organic, grass-fed beef and lamb production.

By: Barbara Soderlin, Rapid City Journal

EDGEMONT (AP) — Edgemont-area rancher Mark Hollenbeck is capitalizing on two agricultural trends at once.

He started his Sunrise Ranch five years ago, looking to include hunting as agritourism.

But today, the six-bedroom hunting lodge he built houses vacationers who don’t want to shoot their dinner. Instead, they want to learn about Sunrise’s organic, grass-fed beef and lamb production.

The shift happened when a friend talked Hollenbeck into going into organic agriculture.

“The more I’m in it, the more I believe it is correct and the right thing to do,” he said, for the ranch environment, the livestock he raises and for the people who eat the meat.

“Now, we are trying to get people to come to the ranch and see how we operate, so they will become customers of our meat business as well,” Hollenbeck said.

Traditional meat marketing isn’t an easy way for organic and grass-fed ranchers to get their product to the customer, said Bryce Baker, ag development specialist for the South Dakota Department of Agriculture.

The mainstream system of sale barns and feedlot operators isn’t appropriate for grass-finished beef or for customers who want to know exactly where their beef came from.

“The organic livestock deal is still pretty niche yet,” Baker said.

Sunrise Ranch started its organic meat operation about a year ago, and Hollenbeck is finding people want to tour the ranch and eat the meat during their stay.

“I’d been interested in doing agritourism for quite some time and just trying to figure out how to put it all together,” Hollenbeck said. “We just want people to enjoy the ranch and to enjoy their food experience.”

He’s working out a formal tour program, but for now, tourists just join him for the daily chores.

Especially with smaller groups, “People come down and we just kind of take them around with us.”

Hosting guests at the ranch lodge is one way to market directly to the consumer. Hollenbeck also grills his product at area farmers markets, and he markets to natural foods stores.

“We want to establish relationships with people that eat the meat,” he said. “It holds me to a higher standard because people know exactly where their food came from.”

He also hopes to move sales directly to the consumer through his website. He offers prepackaged beef and lamb, with the beef organic grassfed and uncertified grass-fed, as well as boxes of free-range pork, both smoked and unsmoked.

It’s difficult to know how many other area ranchers are offering a similar product, because there’s no place to find a comprehensive list of USDA Organic meat operations. Certification is performed by private agencies, not the Department of Agriculture.

Baker said a consumer looking to verify whether a product is organic should ask the producer who his or her certifying agent is, and check with the agent.

The annual certification verifies that everything the livestock consume — including pasture, minerals, hay and other feed — is certified organic.

The rancher has to record all antibiotic use, and animals that receive antibiotics are removed from the program.

Preventative vaccinations are allowed, as long as they’re approved by the certifying agency.

The meat also has to be butchered at an approved processor. Sturgis Meats handles Sunrise Ranch’s livestock.

Many area ranchers may be operating under organic standards, but haven’t taken the time to become certified, Hollenbeck said.

“Most of the people who know their rancher or farmer don’t need a third-party certifier,” he said.

But as he tries to push his product into the Rapid City market, he finds, “The consumer that hasn’t been to my ranch probably feels more comfortable that it’s certified organic.”

The meat is more expensive than that in the traditional commodity markets, not only because of the extra care taken with the inputs, but also because grass-fed animals take longer to finish — the beef is sold at 24 to 36 months old, compared with conventional beef that is 14 months old at butchering, Hollenbeck said.

He said his prices are 25 to 40 percent above supermarket costs.

His organic, grass-fed ground beef is $4 a pound.

But there is a growing customer base of people willing to pay more.

“I’ve cooked steaks at farmers market, and people say, ’What did you flavor this with?’ and I say, ’Nothing,”’ Hollenbeck said.

“I think most people, once they’ve sampled my meat and ate it and seen how it is produced, are very willing to pay a premium for a premium product.”

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