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Ridgefield Farms marks key milestone in buying cattle

By DONNA FARRIS, For The Prairie Star

As Ridgefield Farms of South Dakota buys cattle in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa, a dream born nearly two years ago when the company moved west has been realized.

“It’s the difference of night and day to be purchasing cattle,” said Dennis Wiese, managing consultant serving as chief operating officer for Ridgefield Farms of South Dakota. “It’s not been without its challenges, but we’ve had really good producers and cattle owners to work with and they’ve helped us make this work for the area.”

Ridgefield Farms markets Premium Hereford Beef primarily to high-end restaurants and distributors that sell to fine restaurants. The beef is also sold in upscale retail stores.

Rather than commodity beef, Ridgefield Farms sells a high-end, value-added product.

“This is the first time anything of this magnitude has been done in the Upper Plains,” he said. “We’re very pleased to be the major investor-owned packer here in South Dakota.”

Ridgefield Farms of South Dakota started as a new corporation in April of 2004, growing out of an existing beef marketing business based in Connecticut.

The company has more than 170 investors, mostly South Dakotans. Many are involved in the beef industry although some are non-farmers, Wiese said. There are corporate investors as well, such as the South Dakota Farmers Union.

The company first located in Huron, S.D., and announced plans to build a slaughter and processing facility there.

Project delays led to a change in the plant’s plans and opened the door for investors to change their minds.

In October of 2005, the company’s headquarters moved to Flandreau, S.D.

The community of Flandreau offered the business an incentive package to locate there, including an operating loan.

“It’s been a really good relationship that’s allowed us for the first time to purchase cattle in the state,” Wiese said.

Before November, when the company began purchasing cattle in the region, Ridgefield Farms beef came from Washington Beef of Toppenish, Wash.

Now, Ridgefield Farms beef is being custom processed and packaged through a contract agreement with PM Global Foods in Windom, Minn.

“We do about 500 head a week, sometimes less, sometimes more,” Wiese said.

Ridgefield Farms’ cattle procurement and sales operations are based in Flandreau where about 15 people are employed.

“Our long-term goal here is to build a processing facility. We don’t look for that to happen anytime soon,” Wiese said.

Another possible future goal is a slaughter facility at the original location in Huron.

The company is not in a mode to “hurry up and build,” Wiese said.

“In reality, we need to take a walk at this, not a run at this. We’re very methodically trying to move forward,” he said.

Brian Simon of Seneca, S.D., a Hereford producer and chairman of the board of directors for Ridgefield Farms of South Dakota, said he’s excited to see things come together to a point where the company is buying cattle.

“It’s been a hard road we’ve had to go in the last year. But it feels like things are very stabilized and there’s a lot of potential,” Simon said.

Ridgefield Farms buys cattle that are at least 50 percent Hereford and 100 percent British in the genetic makeup.

“We buy Black Baldies, Red Baldies and Herefords,” Wiese said.

A procurement team with Ridgefield Farms looks for fed cattle now selling and sets up contracts for future delivery.

“We’re looking for people to buy cattle that will fit into our program and people to feed cattle that will fit our program,” Wiese said.

While not always the case, Wiese said Ridgefield Farms often pays a more competitive price for good cattle.

“We offer that opportunity because we sell into the high end,” he said.

Cattle operations of any size can partner up with Ridgefield Farms, Wiese said.

“We’re not one size fits all. That’s the beauty of our operation. We’ve got people who sell us 20 and 30 head and we’ve also got people who bring us 350 head,” Wiese said.

“We need more cattle - more producers and more feeders supplying cattle,” Simon said.

Guy Rusche is head of cattle procurement at Ridgefield Farms. Potential investors in cattle, those who want to feed on a custom basis or those who have cattle to sell can reach him at (605) 573-8500.

Simon, an investor in Ridgefield Farms, was on the originating board for the company.

“I’ve been in the Hereford business all my life and have started to raise Hereford bulls in the last few years,” he said.

Simon got involved with Ridgefield as a way to further capitalize on profits. And Ridgefield will be a closer outlet to market his own beef.

What really attracted Simon, however, was the strength of Ridgefield Farms’ marketing plan.

The formation of the South Dakota company linked South Dakotans who have experience in the cattle industry with those from the East Coast having experience in the high-end retail and restaurant business.

“It brought these groups together to form a company that can mutually benefit from each other’s experience,” Simon said

The founders in Connecticut developed the market by literally going door-to-door to chefs and retailers, creating demand.

“What they needed was more supply. That’s why they came to South Dakota and hooked up with cattle producers,” Simon said.

Wiese said customers from the East Coast have come to South Dakota to visit Ridgefield Farms headquarters and see where cattle they are buying are raised.

The openness of South Dakota, the cleanliness of the land and the environmentally-friendly way animals are raised are selling points to them, he said.

So is the South Dakota story.

“The word ‘Dakota’ and the words ‘rural America’ have a certain mystique but also a value,” Wiese said.

“It’s a story that a lot of our consumers on the other end find intriguing and can relate to and they’re willing to spend a little extra money for the quality and the story,” Simon said. “As producers and those in the cattle industry, if there’s money out there we ought to be trying to capitalize on that.”