CANTON, Mo. -- John Wood never intended to create a business that became an economic leader in Missouri agriculture.
"We were just attempting to develop a small niche," the lifelong Lewis County farmer and businessman said. "The thing took off. It's gone beyond my wildest imaginings."
Wood's family and three others formed Grassland Beef LLC in 2000 to finish cattle on grass and market specialty meats. Early pioneers in the movement, the partners saw interest in the idea grow from solely "mom and pop" operations to small businesses like their U.S. Wellness Meats to attracting some of the nation's largest retailers.
Wood's being recognized for his work to raise cattle on grass and market specialty meats with the 2019 Livestock Person of the Year Award. The award, given annually to someone making a significant contribution to the livestock industry in Northeast Missouri and/or beyond, will be presented at the Missouri Livestock Symposium.
"I'm thankful for that, but I didn't go looking for this. I don't do very well with a lot of attention," Wood said. "It's been quite a journey. We've touched lots of interesting folks in lots of walks of life."
The symposium, the largest agricultural-based trade show in the Midwest, takes place Dec. 6 and 7 at William Matthew Middle School in Kirksville.
The trade show takes place both days, with the award presentation and keynote speaker Temple Grandin, known for her groundbreaking approach to decoding animal behavior and how it helps to handle livestock safely and effectively, on Friday night and free educational programs on Saturday on topics ranging from beef, sheep and meat goats to healthy habits, horticulture and women in agriculture.
Wood considers himself a businessman, an entrepreneur and a farmer – and it takes skills in all three categories to succeed with Canton-based U.S. Wellness Meats which sells grass-fed beef, bison, lamb, 1950s-style pork, pastured poultry and a wide variety of other items.
"Our biggest asset is we still go directly to the consumer. We're able to maintain a niche in there and slowly grow that niche," Wood said. "It's a complicated business to try to maintain the customer base we have and add to it every day (competing with) people with more market reach and capital than us."
Wood's customer base ranges from the World Series Champion Washington Nationals – U.S. Wellness Meats shipped to the team at home and on the road in the 2019 season – and the New York Jets to health-conscious consumers across the nation and into Canada and local chefs like Cory Shupe at Thyme Square in Quincy, Ill.
"We cover most ends of the spectrum from nose to tail," Wood said. "It's amazing how many weird things we sell. I'm always intrigued at the variety."
But the business started slowly, reinvesting any profits, and by 2007 started to take off with the growth in social media and the number of savvy consumers with questions about the foods they eat and products like sugar-free bacon and organ meats. The number of employees grew from five in a marketing office in Monticello to 38 on the payroll in Canton and is expected to grow this year.
"We're able to provide high-quality jobs in the rural community. I take a lot of pride in that," Wood said. "It's not easy work. There's a lot of labor involved in cutting meat."
The Canton location, opened in late 2015, offers custom pick and pack, meat cutting and cold storage along with a retail store.
University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist and symposium committee member Zac Erwin said Wood emphasizes worker safety, comfort and efficiency at the facility.
"In similar facilities workers assemble the frozen packages for customer orders while working in the freezer itself," Erwin said. "At Grassland Beef, workers build packages in a packing room separated by glass walls from the freezer. The 50-degree temperature difference in the packing room lets employees work longer in a safer and more comfortable environment."
On the farming side, three of the original four partners actively produce beef in Clark and Lewis counties in Missouri and Cass County in Illinois with year-round custom grazing done in the southern tip of Alabama. Lamb is produced in Missouri with pastured chickens coming from Missouri, Arkansas and South Carolina.
Wood also is actively involved in the Grassfed Exchange, a nationwide organization built around the grassfed movement.
The company's next venture will add a subscription service targeting millennial consumers. "Millennials don't want to think about it," Wood said. "They want to have something show up every two weeks or three weeks."