As a third-generation farmer, Jake Beeler inherited a deep respect for the land and animals from his parents and grandparents. He started managing Big Acres Farm in western Wisconsin when he was 16 years old. Now, Big Acres is a thriving all-natural Black Angus business that Beeler runs with his wife, Natasha, and their six children with help and support from his parents and farmhand. But maintaining a small, family-run cattle business hasn’t been easy on them.
When the stock market crashed in 2008, the family was forced to sell most of their cattle and nearly shut down. Beeler took over the business full-time, but he struggled to balance the sustainable and humane practices that he learned growing up with animal health issues and the rising cost of equipment, feed, and labor.
“We were working with feed nutritionists that were just pushing their agenda, and we were trusting them because they sounded like they knew their stuff. But looking back, they didn’t have a clue. They would push their medicated feeds, push this product or that product, just as a sales pitch,” says Beeler.
It wasn’t until the Beelers started working with Niman Ranch in 2010 that all the pieces started falling into place. Niman Ranch is a network of more than 600 small and mid-size farmers and ranchers across the United States that adhere to high standards of sustainable and humane farming practices. When Beeler first learned about it, he says it sounded too good to be true. His parents told him that there must be a catch: “In the cattle industry, it’s not that good,” he remembers them saying.
But with the promise of a premium price and a guaranteed market for their beef, the Beelers decided to give Niman a shot. Now, Big Acres has grown from raising 20 cattle to more than 500 at two locations.
“Before, when the weather would go from 10 below to 40 degrees the next day, we always had sick cattle. And if we didn’t get them treated right away, they’d end up dying,” says Beeler. “Ever since I switched over to [Niman Ranch’s] style of feeding, I might lose maybe one or two per year…There are times when I might not even have a loss.” In conventional cattle production, Beeler estimates that losing five percent of the herd due to health issues is common.
Niman’s team of field agents works directly with farmers to cut through inaccurate sales pitches in the animal health world. “They’ll tell you the truth of it and then they break it down more,” explaining why certain methods are better for the animal and environment, says Beeler. For example, giving the cattle space to run around outside reduces stress, which can reduce the risk of viruses and diseases.
And Niman Ranch also provides fair payment for farmers’ products.
“A lot of these [meat buyers], their biggest goal is to buy at the cheapest level they can and then make that extra premium themselves,” says Beeler. “Niman actually pays the rancher or the farmer what their product is worth. They want to see us succeed just as much as their own business and their vendors as well…the last thing they want to see is the doors being shut.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, farmers are more than twice as likely as people in other occupations to die by suicide. Several of Beeler’s peers have divorced or died by suicide because of the pressure of finances, corporate consolidation, and rural development. Others have left farming and their land was sold to developers. For those still in the business, Beeler says that working a second job off the farm is common.
Joining Niman Ranch is allowing Beeler to stay on the farm full-time. He’s connected to a community that supports him through not only on-farm guidance but also personal friendships—an invaluable asset to his business and family.
“They really make you feel valued and appreciated,” says Beeler. “I’ve never had that, my parents never had that from any meat buyer before.”
Four years ago, when Beeler underwent heart surgery, his Niman Ranch field representative called throughout the week to check in, ask what the family needed, and offer to help around the farm. “That spoke a lot of volume, because you never see that [in the cattle industry],” says Beeler.
As the youngest cattle rancher in his township, Beeler thinks having buyers like Niman Ranch is critical to supporting the next generation of farmers and ranchers: “I personally don’t believe I’d be farming if we didn’t have Niman…I wouldn’t be able to afford it.”
Beeler’s main goal is to pass Big Acres on to his children, ideally debt-free. His oldest children’s passion for the work is what gives him hope.
“Just seeing that look in my kids’ eyes, their love and respect of the land, their love and respect of the cattle,” says Beeler. “There are just little fires at the farm that are stressful and take everything out of a guy with what’s going on in the world too…[The kids] put that little seed of hope back in.”
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Photo courtesy of the Beelers