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Unique breed, unique market

This family breeds Piedmontese cattle for direct meat sales.
Pat Sondgeroth and her husband, John, raise Piedmontese cattle near Mendota, Illinois.

Heartland Meats

After years of preparing a business plan for going wholesale with their farm-raised beef, the first check Pat and John Sondgeroth received bounced. And it was a big one. That was eight years ago. What would have been the end to most fledgling businesses proved to be trial by fire for this Mendota, Illinois, couple. They've since rallied and prospered. And their self-run business, Heartland Meats, has blossomed and become well known for their unique farm-raised Piedmontese beef.

Trying something different

The Sondgeroths have been raising commodity cattle for over 30 years on the very same land as John's great grandfather did in 1903. But Pat and John wanted to try something bigger.

Heartland Meats' operations have grown to include raising its own feed and managing its own USDA-inspected processing plant. But the business only got that way by recognizing a need for something truly different.

The Sondgeroths began by searching for a breed of cattle that would best serve their specific needs. After stumbling across the comparatively unheard of Piedmontese breed in a magazine and finding all the characteristics they had been looking for, they ordered a sample.

"When we tasted our first Piedmontese, it was so superior to commodity beef, we hadn't a moment's hesitation," Pat says.

A native to Italy, the breed is very distinctive. Through natural genetics, the animals are double muscled, meaning the meat is more lean and tender than ordinary beef cattle.

The healthier characteristics of the species and the Sondgeroths' refusal to use hormones or daily antibiotics on their cows led Pat and John to look to health and fitness clubs as their first clientele. Though they had carefully lined up several prospective buyers before going wholesale, the first failed check was followed by a wave of disinterest, and things began to look grim.

Some helpful advice from a USDA representative pointed them toward local farmers markets. It saved their business. The Sondgeroths jumped in by attending 33 markets a week. While they have gradually cut back on markets (currently doing six a week), they still play an important role in the sale of their products.

"Every wholesale buyer we have is through contact at a farmers market," says Pat. "It's been a very effective way of getting our word out." Heartland Meats has found a very receptive audience through those markets; a few are prominent restaurants in the Chicago area.

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