Specialty steaks save Florida dairy farm


NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, February 3rd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. 

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: creating a specialized market for beef.

Keeping a farm in the family for generations isn’t easy. It’s become especially difficult over the past decade for small farmers, with operating costs going up and commodity prices going down. 

America still has about 2 million farmsalmost all of them family farms. But Time Magazine reports that more than 100,000 American farmers sold their land over seven years in the past decade.

EICHER: But some families are finding ways to adapt. WORLD’s Sarah Schweinsberg recently visited one such farm in Florida.

AUDIO: [QUIET MORNING]

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: It’s a peaceful morning in Central Florida. And that means it’s breakfast-time for the cattle at the Master Blend Cattle Company farm. 

AUDIO: [Tractor trailer]

Richard VanWagner drives a cabless tractor pulling a wagon that dumps feed into bunks. Cows, bulls, and steers eagerly lower their heads to eat. This isn’t your regular hay, corn, or silage mixture. 

Son, Jacob Vanwagner, says the family likes to use people food to feed their cattle. 

JACOB: We have brewers grain. It’s leftover from the beer making process. We have the potatoes in there. We have then one of the more interesting things that we get is the fruit from stores and we just put it in each load.

A bull uses his nose to rummage through the mixture. He’s looking for a prize: an apple. He happily snarfs it down. 

 AUDIO: [BULL PUFFING]

JACOB: The reason why we do fruit is because it adds bulk to the feed. And the cows really seem to enjoy it quite a lot. 

The VanWagners aren’t afraid to try new ideas. They can’t be or else they would have lost their land a long time ago. 

Jacob points to a pen of about 30 Holstein dairy cattle. 

JACOB: Right now this is the last of our dairy herd.

For decades, the VanWagners milked about 500 cows. 

Then 15 years ago, milk prices began dropping and operation and regulation costs went up. The family has a small farm. To compensate, they needed to buy more land, so they could milk more cows. 

But that wasn’t really an option. Dad, Richard Van Wagner, says sand doesn’t come up for sale often, and it’s expensive.

RICHARD: Everything’s growing so fast now. And so we’re kind of landlocked. 

So Richard VanWagner decided if he wanted to stay afloat, he had to do something completely different. He sold most of his milk cows. Seeing his herd go wasn’t easy. 

RICHARD: We had Holsteins and genetics that we had worked on for 35 years. And it was saying, Okay, I’m letting this go. And that was the tough part. Because we spent a lot of energy and effort doing that. 

The VanWagners shifted to feeding other people’s dairy calves and raising Black Angus beef cattle. 

But they still didn’t have enough land to make a profit. 

RICHARD: The way things are set up now is, it almost forces you to find a niche. Otherwise, you’re competing with the guys that have thousands. And we can’t do thousands. 

So they started to think further outside of the box. 

What if the family started raising more exotic breeds? Ones that many Americans hadn’t even heard of?  

So, the VanWagners learned a new business again. They began buying calf embryos from cattle breeders and implanting them in their own stock.

RICHARD: Everything we breed is artificial, or embryos. And what that allows us to do is we can take genetics from all over the world. And that’s how we found our niche. 

Their specialty became raising cattle from Europe, India, and Japan. 

AUDIO: [COW MOOING]

Jacob VanWagner walks through the cattle feedlot. He names the breeds of all the cattle in one pen.

JACOB: I’ll start with Wagyu, Angus, Belgian Blue, Brahman. Piedmontese that that’s the main ones that we have around here.

Besides raising these purebred cows and bulls… the family also began creating their own cross breeds. 

JACOB: That guy over there is special. He’s our first Wagner blue that we’re going to do. He’s a composite breed. It’s between 50% Wagyu, 25% Belgian Blue, and 25% Angus.

Once the animals are two to four years old, the VanWangers sell their specialty breeds to other farms. 

Because these cattle are rare, buyers pay more money for them. That means the VanWagners can raise fewer animals and still make a profit.  

If they don’t sell the animal, they butcher it and sell the meat directly to customers. 

AUDIO: [Rummaging through meat]

Jacob VanWagner opens one of the deep freezers in their small meat store. There’s not much meat left inside. 

JACOB: In here, I have the Wagyu. And Belgian blue, this is going to be the wagyu box. This is the Belgian blue.

Jacob says customers enjoy the lean, tang of the Belgian Blue and the fatty, tenderness of Wagyu. 

JACOB: So you have the Belgian blue, that’s a deep, maroon red. Then the Wagyu. That’s going to be looking a bit more pale because of the fat content that’s in it.

Back outside, Jacob says people want to buy meat from the family farm because they want to try something new and locally grown. 

JACOB: We like feeding the people in our community, just something different. And they really appreciate it because they say it’s way better quality.

And the VanWagners say they aren’t done exploring other niches yet either. 

Another pen, holds a muscley-white bull. He swings his head up and hits the metal gate with one long horn. 

AUDIO: [HORN HITTING FENCE]

The VanWagners bred him to be a rodeo bull. 

JACOB: My dad’s gonna send him somewhere to get trained as a bucking bull. 

And, dad, Richard VanWagner says they may start breeding American Bison as well. People like lean, bison meat as a healthier option. 

The possibilities—and changes that have to come—are really endless. But that’s what makes the family business fun. 

RICHARD: When you do the same thing every day. You got to do something a little different to make it interesting. And for us this is what started us down that line. And hopefully maybe Bison will be the next step.

MUSIC: [“Life Change” -Thomas Rhett]

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg in Citra, Florida.


(Photo/Sarah Schweinsberg)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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