Enterprising farmers on Prince Edward Island are hoping to crack Japan's stiffly competitive Wagyu beef market by using the lure of Anne Shirley, a revered figure to generations of Japanese women - the ones who decide what is served at weddings.
That enviable level of brand recognition has attracted attention from PEI producers devastated by poor prices on commodity beef and looking to the luxury market to turn things around.
"We're a tiny little island competing in the global commodities market," said Peter Llewellyn, head of the province's agriculture-boosting Rural Alliance. "Right now, we're selling at the very lowest point of the scale. We're trying to start selling at the other end."
The hurdles are significant. The island has no Wagyu cattle, there is plenty of competition for selling to Japan and food standards in that country are extremely high.
Pat McCarthy, president of Alberta-based Wagyu Canada Inc., the dominant domestic player, said Japan imports about 60 per cent of its beef.
There already are about 150,000 Wagyu cattle outside of Japan, though, and he warned that PEI farmers will have to be very specific about how and where they target their product.
"It's like selling champagne to Champagne," he said. "There's got to be an advantage to it."
Mr. Llewellyn believes island producers who move to Wagyu herds will have just the right ace up their collective sleeve with the Anne of Green Gables connection, although the producers haven't yet put their imaginations to work on how the marketing strategy will tie in with the feisty farm girl.
"The highest priced cuts go to the wedding market and you have 97 per cent of [Japanese women]know about Anne," Mr. Llewellyn said. "Here's an opportunity for a brand to be developed that can't be produced anywhere else in the world, because it's Anne from Prince Edward Island."
Backers of the plan are hoping to get a trade mission going, and the regional representative of the import company Maruha Nichiro has shown tentative interest in a partnership.
"It will take at least several years," warned Masatoshi Shibata, who said no decisions have been made by his superiors in Tokyo.
Other island farmers have made strides recently to break the conventional mould. Raymond Loo has experimented with planting dandelions, also for the Japanese market, and this fall, tofu producer Soy Hardy was named one of the Top 10 innovators of the year by Food in Canada magazine.
In the case of beef, the $27-million provincial industry is struggling with low prices, said Rinnie Bradley, executive director of PEI Cattle Producers.
"It's always a challenge, I guess that's part of the reason we're exploring this opportunity," she said. "Right now, it's very much at ground zero. We're looking at what the [Japanese]company is looking for in terms of products, we're looking at what we have to offer."
Currently, Canadian and Japanese regulations prevent the export of beef products to Japan if the cow was more than 20 months old at the time of slaughter. This rules out exports of Wagyu cows, which are slaughtered between 30 and 36 months.Similar restrictions implemented in the mad cow crisis have begun to ease, and the Japanese rules may change by the time PEI farmers are ready to export.
Mr. Llewellyn says that even if the export plans go awry, at the very least, a new source of top quality beef will be available locally.
That's welcome news to Guy LeClair, chef at The Pilot House, one of Charlottetown's top restaurants. He said their burger made with Kobe beef, part of the Wagyu family, sells well, and islanders are ready for more premium products.
"People aren't necessarily looking for a cheaper cut," he said recently as he took a break between lunch and dinner service. "If they know it's a quality cut, they will pay the price."
With a report from Josh WingroveReport Typo/Error