Rick Hebden calls himself a reluctant farmer, someone who pictured himself on a sailboat or overseas after retirement from the Michigan DNR, not feeding cows or mucking stalls. But then an uncle passed away, leaving a fifth-generation family farm in limbo. Rose (now Hebden) was just looking for feed for her sheep herd when fate led her to Rick’s farm to buy hay.
The result is Promised Land Sheep and Beef in Bellaire.
When the couple married on a farm hillside two years ago, they blended both businesses and lives, and now, they head out together each day past a sloping barn in which Rick once played. When pressed, they’ll tell you they’ve come to love their life’s promise and potential, evident when Rick’s melodic whistle draws his cattle herd like the Pied Piper’s flute, and Rose heads past the “guard donkey” to call members of her flock by name for a little petting and a chat.
The business is so based on connections that Rose has made up animal trading cards of a sort. Buy a skein of yarn, and you’ll take home the image of the soft sweetheart from which the wool was shorn, complete with the story behind the name and the mix of wool from the Dorsets, Merinos, Corriedales and other breeds raised in her “United Nations of Sheep.”
“A man called me once to thank me for raising wonderful Barney,” Rose said. “He had received a gift box from a grandnephew of a hat and mittens made with Barney’s wool, and the picture card and my business card were in the box. He got such a kick out of it, he wanted to know how Barney was!”
This new-model farm couple is not alone as northern Michigan neighbors similarly seek new ways to connect to buyers, raise rare-to-Michigan breeds or test ever-creative variations on the Community Supported Agriculture Model.
But to help keep the farm thriving into another generation, the couple has gotten even more creative, turning some of the naturally colored wool into soft wool-stuffed duvets and mattress pads that keep you not too hot, not too cold. There’s also the occasional sheepskin for a blanket or rug, too, and live lambs that can be sold as pets or (for those so inclined) crafted into chops, steaks and gyro-spiced sausages.
This new-model farm couple is not alone as northern Michigan neighbors similarly seek new ways to connect to buyers, raise rare-to-Michigan breeds or test ever-creative variations on the Community Supported Agriculture Model. In all cases, the results mean a win for those in search of innovation and new agritourism fun.
Raising Tibetan Yaks
Head to Gill’s Pier Ranch near Leland, for instance, and you’d be hard pressed to decide which was more fun: the guided farm tour that gets you close enough to (safely) take a selfie with a Tibetan yak or the dinner fix of a Gill’s Pier Rancher, arguably the most unexpected locally sourced sandwich at Bogey’s 19th Hole Restaurant at the Leland Lodge. Customers can sit on a sunny deck, be serenaded by the singer-songwriter playing that night and choose from among several hormone-free, grass-fed burger options. The most popular and best conversation starter is the Leelanau-grown Tibetan yak burger, served with cheese, a ring of onion, a tomato and a 19th hole flag sticking out of the bun.
While she loves the yak burger for its flavor and novelty, server Eliza Fisher said, “We have customers in, like two women today, who said it’s leaner and better for you.”
That’s music to ranch owner Chris Butz, who left a northern Indiana law practice with the goal of blending family and faith and helping to evolve the family farm ideal into a successful business model. For a time after law school, he worked as an attorney for Farm Bureau, he said, and left convinced that small farms can only survive with innovations like agritourism.
“I like the uniqueness of the yak,” he said. “Plus, you get three things, breed stock, fiber and meat. The down is much like cashmere. It can bring a cashmere price, too.”
It’s tough to keep enough supply to meet the large-scale demand for the meat, he says, which is low enough in cholesterol that even people on medication can eat it and high in Omega 3 and 6. But customers can head into the shop off M-22 north of Leland to find a freezer filled with plenty of ground meat for a yak Bolognese or steaks for grilling.
There are blankets, too, socks, soft-stuffed animals and yarn, some from the farm’s alpacas, others from the yaks. A food truck plan is in the works so a visitor can be fully immersed in the agritourism theme while photographing the herd or taking an owner-led walking tour. On those, spectators can learn the operational challenges of herding a yak while watching massive breeding bull Chugach lope through tall grass, admire Super Girl’s extra-fuzzy coat or watch babies hop their way through the pasture.
I’ve now seen and handled the goats and know what they’re eating when they go for walks, and I get a sense of their environment and know they’re
healthy and happy.
— Barb Tholin
On another nearby farm, not far from the town of Cedar, French-trained cheesemaker Madeleine Vedal offers animal walks too, but in her case, it’s the customer that walks the animals and helps in other ways in exchange for free product. She’s testing a way that those who want more immersion in the farm life can help with milking chores in exchange for free milk and credit toward her fall cheesemaking classes.
Vedal dubs this a “skill exchange,” and it’s a fun twist, said customer Barb Tholin, on the Community Supported Agriculture Model that at its inception generally focused solely on the purchase of weekly farm vegetable shares but is expanding in ever-interesting ways.
“I don’t know if it added to my knowledge base of where food comes from, but it adds a connection that I like,” said Tholin, who publishes the local Edible Grand Traverse magazine. “I’ve now seen and handled the goats and know what they’re eating when they go for walks, and I get a sense of their environment and know they’re healthy and happy. It’s also a good reward for your work, to get something as special as fresh goat milk or cheese. It’s like getting free cash — only much better.”
Kim Schneider is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about fun travel destinations.
1 gallon fresh milk
3 ounces white wine vinegar
1½ cups cold water
A large stainless stock pot with lid
Fluid measuring cup
A mold or sieve (even a colander will work)
Bring the milk to 195 F; cool down to 180 F. The quickest way is to fill a sink with cool water and put the sauce pan into it, stir gently and watch the temperature go down. Return to heat and bring it up to 188 F. Sprinkle a pinch of salt into the milk. Add the white wine vinegar and cold water, stir quickly and put aside for an hour.
After 60 minutes, gently remove the floating curd with a skimmer and place it into the clean cheesecloth atop a sieve or ricotta mold. Let it drain and use it immediately, or put it into a container to chill and enjoy it the next day, fresh with herbs, salt and olive oil, with fruit and sugar, or in any recipe that calls for ricotta.
— Madeleine Vedal