Kansas Profile 01-09

This is Kansas Profile. I'm Ron Wilson, director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University.

Have you ever seen a flying manure spreader? I hadn't - other than the birds which roost above my parking place - until I came to LeRoy, Kansas. There atop a ten foot pole is an old mechanical manure spreader complete with wings and a propeller. It marks the location of Luther's Smokehouse, which produces what the owner modestly calls the "best jerky in the universe." It's today's Kansas Profile.

Meet Martin and Shirlee Luther, owners of Luther's Smokehouse. Martin's sense of humor, coupled with his commitment to quality in producing smoked meats, make this a remarkable rural business.

Martin is originally from DeSoto, Kansas. He went to work for an upscale grocery store in Kansas City and became a professional meat cutter. After that, he worked for some national grocery chains.

One day while visiting his brother in southeast Kansas, Martin mentioned to someone that he might be interested in buying a small locker plant someplace. The man said, "Well, there's one for sale right up here in LeRoy."

Martin says, "I borrowed $1,000 from my mother and $500 from my brother and the owner was willing to carry the note." Martin bought that locker plant, reopened it, and rebuilt the business.

As the business grew, he looked for ways to expand product usage. In 1974, he bought a meat grinder from a locker plant at Meriden. The seller showed Martin how to make beef jerky, so Martin gave it a try. The jerky became so popular that Martin eventually sold the locker plant and went to making jerky full-time.

Today, Martin's jerky is sold through his convenience store, restaurant, and jerky outlet in LeRoy plus some 40 convenience stores around the region. But by expanding his market through mail order and the Internet, he has transformed his business. All told, Luther's Smokehouse has more than a million dollars in sales annually, with some 7,000 customers from coast to coast and beyond. Wow.

In addition to quality jerky, Martin offers something else: Fun. He says, "I started a collection of clean jokes when I was 16 years old." His humor is on display throughout his store. This includes whimsical items on sale such as used toilet paper and Roadkill Helper to the signs such as "Shirt and shoes required - underwear optional" and the one above the counter which says "Odor food here."

The flying manure spreader, which he calls a "crapduster," is another example. Martin got the idea from seeing one on a trip. He then found a 1920 manure spreader and had wings and a prop added to it before posting it atop a ten foot pole in front of his building.

His humor is infectious, but when it comes to quality jerky, there are no fun and games. Martin's original jerky is made from 100 percent Choice beef steak with all outside fat and gristle removed. The jerky is sliced and hickory smoked for 16 hours in a custom smokehouse. Martin says, "I learned in that fancy grocery store in Kansas City that people will value quality."

Martin is now offering his products at a special rate for nonprofit organizations wanting to do fundraisers. He is also hosting motorcycle rallies on the fourth Sunday of each month.

Luther's Smokehouse offers turkey and buffalo jerky, snack sticks, summer sausage, pulled pork, smoked cheese, microwaveable sirloin steaks, and more. Special flavors include pemmican, jalapeno, and teriyaki. For more information, go to www.jerkyusa.com.

Martin says, "It seems like we're always shipping jerky to the military in the Persian Gulf." All this from LeRoy, Kansas, population 588 people. Now, that's rural. How exciting to find this business flourishing in rural Kansas.

Have you ever seen a flying manure spreader? You can find one mounted on a ten foot pole in LeRoy, Kansas. We salute Martin and Shirlee Luther for making a difference by building their business and having fun along the way. Along with that manure spreader, you will find delicious, high quality jerky and a remarkable entrepreneur with a sense of humor. Martin says, "That's for people who wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole."

For the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development, this is Ron Wilson with Kansas Profile