Small, sustainable and successful farm produces healthy animals, chemical-free food and a fulfilling lifestyle.
In this era of technological and scientific advancements in farming practices, we’ve found one farm nestled in the rolling hills near Elysian, that is thriving by simply getting back to the basics.
Bruce and Beth Meyer long ago embraced what is now a growing trend toward sustainable agriculture. Farming that is based on an understanding of ecosystem services, the relationship between organisms and their environment. Sustainable agriculture utilizes an integrated system of plant and animal production practices that will last over the long term, making the most efficient use of non-renewable resources.
The Meyer Beefalo and Bison Hybrid Farm, about 15 miles from Mankato’s northeast edge, has been in business for 30 years. It serves a savvy niche market, yet the farm enterprise is reminiscent of the mid-20th century, or perhaps an even earlier agricultural era. To make the journey to this chemical-free, hormone-free, non-GMO farm, where the animals respond to their names, a visitor drives north on Le Sueur County Road 13 and travels down a couple of gravel roads before turning into the Meyers’ farm driveway. A black and white sign indicates the visitor has reached the destination. This is where the animals live, thrive and reproduce.
The Meyers specialize in raising not only pasture-grazed beefalo and bison hybrids, but also heritage breed Red Wattle hogs, Katahdin Hair sheep and lambs, free-range heritage breed turkeys, a few geese sold for holiday roasting, 200 meat chickens, and 30 laying hens.
The income from the Meyers’ enterprise permits them to fulfill a dream–to be full-time farmers, with no need to work off the farm. Beth Meyer says, “It may sound like the 1950s, but we would even prefer it to be more like in the 1800s, simpler and healthier. In addition to pasture-raising the beefalo and bison hybrids, we pasture our hogs and sheep, as well as our poultry. We use no growth hormones or antibiotics with the animals and no chemicals on the land. We use our own composted manure, which is free of chemicals and antibiotics.”
The commercial aspect of the enterprise, the Farm Store, has been open for a decade, located in a log cabin that Bruce Meyer built in the winter of 2005-06. In addition to being available in the store, the Meyers’ meat products are sold to customers throughout south-central Minnesota and the Twin Cities area. And they prefer to do business regionally to support the local economy. For instance, meat for the Farm Store is cut, wrapped and frozen at Geneva Meats, a USDA-approved meat processing facility in Geneva, Minn. All individual meat purchases are picked up at the Farm Store, but customers who purchase a half or quarter of an animal pick up their meat at George’s City Meats in Nicollet, which handles butchering for larger purchases.
The crops include open pollinated corn, alfalfa-clover hay, field peas and a small grain mixture of oats and rye grass that mature at varying times, keeping the pigs in pasture for several months. The beefalo and bison hybrids are raised on pasture and are rotated through paddocks to prevent overgrazing.
The Meyers are farming the 30 acres on which Meyer grew up, another 30 he purchased, and 50 rented acres. He says, “If we had to go out and buy the land, we’d need to have an off-farm job. There is a young woman who comes to help us out and to learn our farming practices. She would love to farm, but she cannot afford to buy a farm right now.”
The Meyers envision that the success of their enterprise may result in others adopting or developing sustainable agricultural practices. Beth Meyer says, “We hope that people who try our meat will spread the word to their family and friends that there truly is affordable meat that is healthy for you. We also encourage people to learn about the plight of small farms across the country and to do whatever they can to keep them from disappearing by supporting their local farmers with their food dollars. We need more people to do what we’re doing. We need more small, diversified farmers to bring back the small rural community. We’ve lost too many small towns, and our food source will be in jeopardy if someone decides we don’t get fuel anymore. Our goal is to make sure that our back-to-basics, sustainable farming practices are not forgotten and to encourage others to try this way of farming. It’s an amazing lifestyle—not a career, not a job—a lifestyle.”
These idyllic surroundings might be described as creamy frosting on the cake of sustainable agriculture, but it has not always been this way. When Bruce Meyer began farming organically two decades ago, one reason was that he’d had a negative health reaction to farm chemicals. Another was his desire to restore the depleted soil to organic health and to offer customers meat that was naturally healthful.
“In 1986, I bought my first beefalo heifer,” he says. “My dad purchased a beefalo bull that he bred to dairy cows, Guernseys and Holsteins, just for meat.” From 1986 to 2003, Meyer increased the size of his herds and tended the cropland. To keep the farm going, he put his two-year education in small engine mechanics to use by having a shop on the farm in which he did small engine repairs. He sold meat by word of mouth. Then along came Beth, with a few ideas about product promotion and customer development.
She explains, “We took part in farmers’ markets, where we made customer contacts. With the Farm Store’s success, we no longer take part. Bruce also had a list of customers for quarters and halves, so we began sending a newsletter, and now we have a longer email list. I also designed a website, and we’re listed in the Minnesota Grown Directory. But some of our customers are neighbors who live in the cottages on German and Jefferson lakes during the summer.”
Word-of-mouth recommendations from satisfied customers continue to be part of the farm’s success story. Although the Meyers use the internet to promote their business, they consider themselves to be non-techies. (Their TV receives only two channels, one of them a public broadcasting station.)
There are other benefits to living in harmony with the land. Although Beth Meyer worked as an accountant in Mankato for the first two years of her marriage, she made the final transition to the farm enterprise once the Farm Store opened. She laughs, “When I quit working, I donated all of my business clothes. We even wear casual clothes to church, a tiny rural church.”
One might think that a day on the farm varies only by the season, but Beth Meyer will dispute that, “There isn’t a typical day. We can put together a list, and it can be out the window, depending on the weather or a situation with the animals. We don’t have a routine, other than feeding, watering and milking. We begin feeding and watering the animals at 8 a.m., checking them to make sure they are all doing well. We handle the occasional breech birth ourselves. The veterinarian is here only on rare occasions, such as when we sell stock out of state and need to get a permit and an ear tag for that.”
In addition to taking care of the animals, there are always the odd jobs, such as repairing equipment and moving or repairing fences, as well as pulling thistles and picking rocks. Other duties change with a seasonal rhythm familiar to farmers since the dawn of time—spring planting, haying in the summer and fall harvest.
“I do all the planting and harvesting myself,” Bruce Meyer says. “Most of the machinery is pretty old, bought from my dad when he retired, but I can fix it. We have more tractors than we need, but I do use three of them, as well as the seed planter, grain drill, corn planter, rotary hoe, hay mower and rake, the balers and the cultivator. I do the cultivating mechanically, rather than chemically. And we have an old combine from 1962 for small grain.”
His wife adds, “The only thing we don’t have is a team of horses. We’ve talked about the benefits and drawbacks, and we don’t plan on it.”
After 25 years of raising buffalo that were sold for meat, the Meyers made the decision to sell the buffalo herd in 2011. Beth Meyer explains: “We’ve experienced good increases in the number of people wanting to buy beefalo meat, so we decided to expand the beefalo herd and add some bison hybrids. Those are similar to beefalo, although the bison hybrid has a higher percentage of buffalo in it.”
Bison and buffalo are essentially the same animal, according to Bruce Meyer. His wife explains: “A bison hybrid is a cross between a bison and domestic cattle, resulting in an animal that is at least 37.6 percent bison. An animal is considered to be a beefalo if it is 17 to 37.5 percent bison. Genetically, beefalo are 3/8 buffalo and 5/8 beef cattle.
“Bison hybrids have existed as far back as when settlers brought domestic cattle with them,” she continues. “With few of the cattle in fenced pastures, the cattle sometimes interbred with bison. More recently, some ranchers have purposely bred the two species in an attempt to produce a longer lived, winter-hardy breed with a heavy coat and strong maternal characteristics. The result includes both bison hybrids and beefalo, which are gentle and easy to handle. The cows calve easily and do well on grass, finishing to slaughter weight in 18-22 months. And with buffalo genetics, you get low cholesterol, low fat, high protein and great tasting meat.”
The beefalo herd now numbers about 50, with new calves replacing the coming two-year-olds that are being butchered. There are always two generations of calves with the cows.
Sustainable and stress-free living, well, almost. Bruce Meyer recalls the time they had to refund order deposits on Thanksgiving turkeys. “One year, the hawks killed our poults (young turkeys). The scarecrow didn’t do the job of scaring the hawks away.”
Cultivating A Lasting Relationship
Bruce and Beth Meyer were married in May 2004 in the Black Hills of South Dakota. They met as a result of one of Meyer’s friends suggesting it was time for him to sign up for a match making service.
Beth Meyer explains, “We met through Country Connection, which I had learned about through a PBS television program. At the time it was based on letter writing to a center in Nebraska, which forwarded the letters to the recipient. Men received ladies’ profiles and photos, and ladies received men’s in a monthly publication. Bruce wrote to me first, and I wrote back. I was living in Iowa City, Iowa, so I came here for our first date on November 15, 2003. Bruce took me to dinner at the Bear’s Den in Elysian.”
When Beth Meyer enrolled in Country Connection, she was consciously seeking a rural lifestyle. She had found her work as an accountant more stressful than she preferred a career to be. Planning to make a change to a career in research, she earned undergraduate degrees in biology and psychology, and then enrolled in graduate school. After realizing that her new career choice would likely be even more stressful than accounting, she dropped out of graduate school and began to consider what life path might provide her with personal satisfaction, along with a lower stress level.
“Farming,” she said. “I thought, ‘farming isn’t stressful.’” Although some farm families might disagree with that idea, it has proven to be true for the Meyers. On evenings when the weather is pleasant, after the chores are done, the couple sits outdoors and watches the antics of some of their stock, like the twin lambs named Garrison and Keillor, born this spring to a ewe named Sara. A gander struts back and forth in a pen, while the goose sits on a nest of eggs in a small building. The bison hybrids, beefalo, three milk cows, the sheep and the pigs graze in their individual pastures, secure within moveable paddocks. For the Meyers’ own use, there are fruit trees, berry bushes, a grape arbor and a large vegetable garden. The Guernsey cows provide rich milk from which the Meyers make cheese, cottage cheese and ice cream with chocolate-cinnamon, their favorite.
“We have three Guernsey cows, bred to a Guernsey bull, that are having calves early this summer,” Beth Meyer said. “We don’t need three cows and their calves, so we’ll sell them as breeding stock when they are 6-9 months old. We don’t take the calves away from the cows when they are born. After 2-3 weeks, we milk one of the cows in the morning and leave the calf to take the rest for the balance of the day. We also have milked some of the beefalo cows in the past. We have a list on our refrigerator that we call our Cow Hall of Fame. It has the name of each cow we have milked over the years. Each animal has a name, which goes to respecting the animal, and we don’t use ear tags here.”
Tell a bit about your childhoods. Bruce: “I grew up right here, born in 1959, the year after my father bought this farm. We had a diversified dairy farm, with chickens, hogs and sheep. I have an older brother and a younger sister.” Beth: “I grew up a suburbanite in western New York State, with three brothers.”
Favorite school classes? Bruce: Math and science. Beth: I disliked school, but after high school I got a degree in computer programming, with a minor in accounting, then Bachelor of Science degrees in biology and psychology. Here, Bruce taught me everything about farming, but I also read.
What would you change, if you could? Bruce: “I wish I had started out farming the organic route instead of using the contemporary, prevalent chemical practices into the 1990s. Beth: “If I could have come to farming earlier, I would have. I absolutely love this lifestyle. I also wish we had met and married 10 years earlier and had children, but God brought us together at the time in our lives when He did.”
Hobbies? Bruce: We don’t have much time for hobbies. Beth: In the winter we do a lot of reading, and I’m teaching myself to play the violin.
What is your favorite aspect of farming? Bruce: Being outside and experiencing nature. Beth: The babies are, by far, my favorite part. Watching them be born, watching them grow and mature, experiencing each and every individual personality–they truly are amazing.
What possession do you value most? Both: We don’t really view all of this as possessions. Everything we receive is from the Lord; it’s not ours. By His grace, He allows us to do this, and we do it the best we can. The land is His, and the animals are His.
What intangible do you value most? Beth: Honesty in myself and others, and respect for people. It doesn’t matter what other people think of us as long as we adhere to what we know is right. Bruce: I’d go along with those statements.
If not this, what would you be doing? Bruce: We will never retire. We’ll do this until we die. Beth: I will never, ever go back to corporate America. We have a good 20 years ahead.
Meyer Beefalo and Bison Hybrid Farm
Address: 47742 241st Avenue, Elysian Township
Phone: (507) 931-1889