John Atkins is an unsung hero of the meat industry, says one of his suppliers.

Waipukurau farmer Mark Warren has been supplying 20kg lambs to Atkins to export to the United States as Atkins Ranch chilled cuts since 1991.

Warren says there aren't enough entrepreneurial farmers around like Atkins and his wife, Sara.

The Atkins realised in the late-1980s that they had to find a way to make more money from their northern Wairarapa hill-country farm.

Government subsidies were ending, meaning they needed to make the farm pay better. They also believed meat companies were ripping farmers off.

So in 1989, the couple packed a case full of lamb and headed for San Francisco.

Their naivete showed as they knocked on the doors of restaurants and hotels with their samples.

Their minds were concentrated on their task by the knowledge there was a 10-tonne container of lamb cuts following them on a ship.

They must have done something right, because their door-to-door hawking has grown into a company that has offices in Hawkes Bay and San Francisco employing 25 people and generating $20 million in foreign exchange a year.

Lean Meats has 240 suppliers from Auckland to Christchurch, providing a year-round supply of chilled lamb for restaurants and supermarkets. About 40 are in Hawkes Bay, providing early lambs for the Atkins Ranch brand of "natural range-reared lean lambs".

All the meat is processed through Progressive Meats' Hastings plant.

Lean Meats started with the Atkins and Masterton farmer Phil Guscott as principals, 105 farmers who joined for a small investment, a converted coolstore in Greytown and the energy of the Atkins'.

Guscott stayed in New Zealand to take care of the supply lines while the Atkins moved to the US to set up the markets.

By 1992 the company had outgrown its Greytown base and moved to Hawkes Bay.

John Atkins says the secret to the company's success is that early and continuing personal contact - "wearing out the shoe leather".

He and Sara lived in the US for 10 years and their son, Andrew, and daughter, Karen, remain there.

The Atkins have since sold the Wairarapa farm and bought a 140ha block at Raukawa, southwest of Hastings.

When the weather is fine, Atkins commutes to work from there on his Harley-Davidson motorbike.

He gained a marketing qualification from Berkeley University to help him crack the giant US market.

Atkins Ranch cuts are aimed at niche markets such as upmarket supermarkets and restaurants.

"We do niche marketing so we can keep control of the product," he says.

The company's website advises consumers that Atkins ranch lambs are reared naturally "in the fresh air of green, hill-country pastures of New Zealand".

There are no feed additives, no feedlots and no growth stimulants.

About 65 per cent of Lean Meats' production is chilled cuts such as lamb racks and loins.

Legs and shoulders are sold frozen to other markets such as Europe and Britain because they are not usually worth the cost of producing as chilled cuts.

The high dollar is making Lean Meats sharpen its act, but Atkins isn't losing sleep over it.

"We just charge our customers more. It is cyclical so we are not going to abandon the market."

Atkins says Americans are great people to do business with.

"They are hard to get as customers, but once you do you have to muck up very badly to lose them."

He says they are demanding and their attitude to business is the antithesis of New Zealand's "she'll be right" and "no worries".

He does not believe the mad cow disease scare in the US will affect business.

"Beef sales were normal in the last two weeks."

American consumers tend not to panic and the US Government has done a good job of dealing with it, he says.

However, the foot and mouth outbreak in Europe in 2002 brought home to Atkins how vulnerable his business was to rely solely on New Zealand lamb.

As a result, other meats now make up more than half the product moving along his distribution chains - including rattlesnake meat, beaver tails and American beef and Canadian pork.

Atkins says food safety and traceability are highest priorities for American consumers.

Contrary to popular belief, Americans don't like the idea of GM foods and Atkins Ranch promotes itself as being GM-free.

Atkins lamb also has no antibiotics or growth hormones.

"Food safety concerns rate much higher than price in customer priorities."