@story and images Marcus Coker
The sun breaks over the rural town of Grannis, just thirty minutes south of Mena, and Tracy Youngblood stands by her kitchen sink in socked feet. Her rubber work boots sit by the front door. As her children begin to rise, Tracy finishes hand washing the electronic milking machine she purchased on Ebay. Her husband Andy comes in from moving the cows, pours a cup of coffee, and rests at the breakfast table. Nothing groundbreaking seems to be taking place, so one might wonder why theYoungbloods are often talked about at the local coffee shop.
For the majority of their lives, Andy and Tracy were like most any other farming family in Arkansas. They raised cattle, chickens, pigs, goats, and sheep. They leased land to a timber company. They both had full-time jobs away from the farm, and their two children, Ben and Matti, attended public schools.
“We were apart all day long. We didn’t spend a lot of time together,” says Tracy. “[But we] had a vision of what we wanted. We knew something had to change. We wanted to spend more time together as a family. [Now] we eat breakfast together, we eat lunch together. We spend ninety-five percent of our time together. We all work together on the farm.”
In 2003, Andy quit working for Tyson, and Tracy quit teaching school. They built large-scale houses for their animals and decided to concentrate on farming full time. They also started home schooling their children. “It’s a rarity that both husband and wife can farm. Usually one or the other has to work a town job,” says Andy.
For a few years they continued to be part of a conventional system, a system in which calves are raised by their mothers for five to seven months and then sold at a sale barn. The calves are then purchased by buyers and eventually sent to feed lots. Sometimes the calves are fed grass for a few months but ultimately end up eating grains, usually corn.
Andy explains that you are what you eat, and cows are no exception.
Tracy says that although cows like eating corn, “It’d be like us feeding on a buffet of Snickers and 3 Musketeers and chips all the time.” Andy adds, “Above a certain rate, grain will start to affect them pretty seriously, as well as their meat or milk that they produce.”
Cows have four stomachs, a unique feature that Andy says allows them to produce “incredible meat value” living solely on grass and sunshine. “Natural grass-fed meat has a lot of good properties for you and me.” Andy says the health benefits of natural grass-fed meat are significant. The diet, according to Andy, keeps cows’ PH levels balanced, producing CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a cancer fighting substance, and a beneficial proportion of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.
He says that in conventional systems, calves are often born in the winter, out of sync with nature. Additionally, there are standard vaccinations once or twice a year, as well as chemical dewormings. The crowded environments at feed lots can be a breeding ground for illnesses which are often treated with antibiotics. Andy and Tracy believe all these chemicals and medications, in addition to the pesticides and herbicides many use to treat their land, have a negative impact on the meat sold to consumers. “It’s a whole system,” says Andy. “You can’t just pull one piece of the puzzle out.”
Andy learned about organic farming alternatives while researching ways to increase the number of cattle he could raise per acre. When Tracy’s father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, they considered their own health and were faced with a big decision. They knew they were not moving and that they couldn’t change their genetics, so they decided to make lifestyle changes. In 2006, they switched from conventional farming to organic.
Because cattle genetics have changed over the decades and most mother cows have grown accustomed to grains, Andy and Tracy have had to “hunt hard” to find cattle that can survive on grass alone. They recently bought a bull and ten heifers that are part of the American Devon breed, a breed with a smaller frame that better supports grass feeding. “We want a good end product, [and] they do everything we want,” says Tracy. “They’re good mothers. They raise a crackerjack calf on grass alone. It’s all about meat quality, and the conventional is about weight.”
Andy and Tracy no longer sell their animals at sale barns. Their cattle no longer end up at feed lots. “We sell meat. We do the whole system. The difference is we’re keeping those animals on the farm,” says Tracy. Consequently, the animals aren’t exposed to pesticides and herbicides, to unnecessary chemicals or antibiotics.
Once the animals have matured, they’re taken to a USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) processing facility in Oklahoma. “We market that [finished product] to individual customers, farmers’ markets, and online markets such as locallygrown.net. We have a couple restaurants we’re looking at.” Tracy travels up to four hundred miles a week delivering product, often meeting customers in parking lots. Fort Smith is her farthest drop off point.
Andy and Tracy respect and value their customers. “When we were in the conventional system, we didn’t consider the guy at the end who was eating that meat,” says Andy. “[But now], there is a great deal of trust involved in our customers. They know us, and they know our farm. We have a transparent operation. They’re welcome to come any time and look and see what we’re doing. It’s a great deal of trust, and folks want that, they like that. We’re not going to take chances with hindering that relationship.”
Tracy adds, “We will raise that animal and make sure it’s done right. We have customers whose children are autistic, and they’ve found that they are at a higher level of functioning if they’re on totally organic products, things without preservatives or dyes or any type of additive. They will not compromise, and we take that very seriously.”
Tracy says their product “is more expensive because we’re not tied into a system that’s subsidized by the government. We have to travel a long way for a USDA processor. That’s more expensive because we’re not able to volume him a thousand animals this month. But I think it evens out. If you’re not buying Cokes and boxed foods, you’ll be able to afford it. Our ground beef is $4.95 a pound.”
Andy and Tracy are looking toward the future. They hope to have a retail store and larger delivery routes. They want an educational facility where people can learn about organic farming, cooking, canning and preserving. “I think it will be necessary at some point to know where your food is coming from,” says Tracy.
Also, they’d like to teach other farmers about their methods. Andy says, “Sadly, farmers are a group of people that are the slowest to make change.” He smiles as he puts his elbows on the table and clasps his hands. “We get talked about a lot in this community. We’re the odd balls. But I’m finding if we’re not coffee shop talk every now and then, we’re probably not on the edge enough. We’re not pushing the letter enough.”
For more information, visit youngbloodgrassfed.com.