Dollars from scents
Sam Collora didn't set out to become a pee farmer, but he's built a thriving business selling deer urine to hunters.
MOUNT PLEASANT, IOWA (Fortune Small Business) -- I didn't set out to become a pee farmer.
I was working as plant manager at a steel-manufacturing facility and running a taxidermy business on the side. One day my wife, Judi, bought me some deer to use as live models. Owning deer is like keeping two rabbits in a hutch in the backyard. It's harmless enough at first, but soon you've got a whole yard full.
As my herd grew, I started collecting urine to use when I hunted. Pheromone-rich urine from a doe in estrus is the strongest buck attractant I know of. So when the does were in heat I would grab a shovel, scoop up their urine and some dirt with a shovel, pour it into a Baggie, and stick it in the refrigerator.
My friends and I had a lot of success hunting with the urine. In 1990 Judi and I built a barn with handling facilities and collection rooms. The next year we started selling refrigerated whitetail urine. Our urine must be refrigerated because it's 100% pure and undiluted. The preservatives that some of our competitors mix into their urine kill the pheromones that make this type of urine an effective lure. Pure deer urine has a shelf life of about 60 days, so we only collect it seasonally to make sure it stays fresh for the fall.
Collecting deer urine resembles a conventional dairy operation. We keep 130 deer and a few elk. The deer come into a barn at night to eat. Their urine drips through grates onto a sloping floor that runs into a collection vat surrounded by a cooling pit. When the vat fills up, workers store it in a walk-in refrigerator. We filter the urine, bottle it, and ship it out in coolers to our customers.
There are 17 million deer hunters in America, and the whitetail-lure business - a $44-million-a-year market - keeps growing. We have four full-time employees, and we hire three or four more to help out during the fall. Our bestselling product is a two-ounce spray bottle that retails for $15.50.
We also sell freeze-dried urine, which has an indefinite shelf life - once you remove the moisture, bacteria can't grow. We sell it with a bottle of distilled water that hunters use to reconstitute it. Initially hunters used tap water, but the chlorine in the water killed the pheromones.
We own a sporting goods store that sells our deer urine along with bow-hunting gear and paintball equipment. We're in the process of moving the whole operation to a new farm. It will be a turnkey operation, with everything in one place: collection, shipping, receiving, and retail.
I love my job, but people cringe when I tell them what I do. When they visit our facility, they assume it's going to be nasty. Not true: Even one kernel of deer feces is enough to contaminate urine. Every day we spray the whole barn with high-pressure hoses and dry it with powerful blowers. You could eat lunch off the floor of our deer barn.
Sam Collora is the owner of American Outdoors in Mount Pleasant, Iowa.