CONGER, Minn. — 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 in Conger and Albert Lea, Minn.

That meat used to come from a rancher who lived in Laramie, Wyo., and had previously worked with people in Iowa, according to Jeremy Johnson, president of Fellers Ranch.

In the spring of 2021, “that rancher decided to get out of the business” and retire, he said.

“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.

“We’ve got five people with different areas of expertise,” 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 every piece of meat he sells. 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. “We were able to do it.”

For a year and a half, Merkouris said, they “custom-raised” the Wagyu beef for the Wyoming farmer. “Started to learn about the Wagyu industry, the Wagyu breeding.”

Wagyu beef are not raised the same as 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 didn’t know anything about Wagyu until he started the new venture, limits feeding to twice daily. That in turn limits how fast the cattle grow, and helps them develop intramuscular marbling.

Raising Wagyu takes longer than with other cattle — 30 months before processing — making the cattle older than typical market meat.

That was a surprise to Merkouris. He was also surprised by the cattle themselves. “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.

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.

“We’re a Minnesota company,” he said. “We’re proud of that. The cattle are Minnesota, the process is Minnesota, we’re all from Minnesota.”

Fellers Ranch sells Wagyu locally to Trumble’s 2.OH, Trail’s Travel Center, Buckley’s Bar and Grill in Walters and Torey’s Restaurant and Bar in Owatonna. Johnson said the majority of the Wagyu is sold in the Twin Cities.

“Wagyu beef, in the last year to two years, has become pretty popular in the restaurant industry,” Merkouris said.

That’s because the beef is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and contains essential amino acids, including omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, he said. Those acids are believed to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s.

According to Johnson, Wagyu (“Japanese cow”) is a niche market, meaning there’s a higher premium when sold.

“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.

“Wagyu is becoming bigger and bigger every year in the US,” he said.

And while Johnson is learning more about the agricultural side, Merkouris is learning more about retail.

“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, Minn., also hopes the partnership helps get his son Caleb into the business. Caleb and his sister, Ellen, show cattle in 4-H. Caleb has been showing dairy steers for over 10 years and beef cattle for three. Ellen has shown dairy steer for six years and beef for three.

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