BY: W.T. Eckert
Teetering on the county line, dividing St. Lawrence from Franklin, Justin Tucker has a place that is more than a home and more than a livelihood.
Mr. Tucker has created his own place of catharsis.
A 35-year-old marine and veteran of the war in Iraq, Mr. Tucker served from 2002 to 2006 and was twice deployed to Al Anbar Province once in 2003 and a second time in 2005, totaling 18 months.
On a warm Wednesday, June afternoon Mr. Tucker stood in the mud and grass pastures of his property, Tucker’s Black Angus Beef Ranch, at 299 Hazen Road, and he surveyed what he began 11 years earlier, a haven for his purebred black Angus cattle.
“This is my medication, so to speak. If I didn’t have this, honestly,” he paused as a calf wanders over to him and he kneels to embrace the animal. “The road I was going down years ago, after I came home, I don’t know where I would be, honestly.”
But going to agriculture from the military wasn’t a very big shift for Mr. Tucker at all. He was born and raised on his parents dairy farm in Brushton.
“I did everything every adult was doing from the age of four until the age of 18, when I joined the marine corp, so I had a very vast background in agriculture prior to joining the service, but honestly, I joined the military partly because I was sick of agriculture,” Mr. Tucker said. “The majority of 18-year-olds that join the military come from rural areas.”
And while he went off to serve his country, it was that time away that allowed Mr.Tucker to realize that coming back to the north country and his roots in farming was where he needed to be.
But he found in returning home to the states, that there were no resources in place for a veteran wanting to return to farming.
Then, by chance in 2008, he said he Googled the words “veterans” and “agriculture” for reasons which are still beyond him, but it led him to Michael O’Goreman, who was then just trying to get his Farmer Veteran Coalition off the ground, which Mr. Tucker said “completely enabled us to continue to be where we are today.”
Mr. Tucker was the eighth veteran to have spoken to Mr. O’Goreman at that time. Now the organization has more than 15,000 farmer veterans and Mr. Tucker said he’s been involved with helping over the years, attending conferences, Farm Aid concerts and meetings throughout the country and the state.
Additionally, the FVC created a Homegrown by Heroes label about five years ago, in order to set veterans apart from their competitors, Mr. Tucker said.
“So when a veteran is selling his dozen of eggs at the local store, next to the factory farm eggs that sell for 50 cents a dozen, and the veteran raises his chicken the right way, free-range, antibiotic-free, the whole nine yards, and his are priced at $2.50, we wanted to have a label on there to give the consumer the extra reason to buy our products,” Mr. Tucker said.
Back in 2008 Mr. Tucker applied for and was awarded a $5,000 Farmer Veteran Fellowship Fund through the coalition and bought the first of his black Angus cattle to start raising cattle to build capital in order to buy his parents dairy farm a few years later.
That dream went up in literal flames in late August 2014 when a fire took not just his parents’ farm, but their cattle, Mr Tucker said.
“They lost everything. Every cow, every part of the barn, completely destroyed,” Mr. Tucker said. “So on that day, our whole plan changed. The whole timeline, the whole business plan, the whole everything changed.
“So at that time we just said let’s just roll with the black Angus. We’re already established, we know what we’re doing, now let’s take it to the next level.”
That included the purchase of a 12-foot by 16-foot, industrial-size, walk-in freezer that is located in the front yard of his home and farm, creating a storefront that now houses not just a variety of cuts of beef, but pork from his Duroc pigs and chicken also raised on the ranch.
He is also currently working on the completion of a 48-by-80 freestyle barn that is going to aid in the safety of handling the cattle and also the safety of those working on the ranch, he said.
At the time of the interview with NNY Business, Mr. Tucker had 96 cows, but was expecting to have 140 by the end of August, after the dams gave birth.
And while the Farmer Veteran Coalition enabled the ranch to reach its level of success, Mr. Tucker said the farm wouldn’t run without the hard work of his family, including his parents, his wife Kelli, and even his four young children who work with the 4-H goats he has.
“I want to make sure credit gets where credit is due, but also make sure that people and other veterans know that this is only possible with 18 hour work days from my whole family,” Mr.Tucker said.
He said his story was “true and tough, as in the way that people can see how hard we work.”
“I wouldn’t be able to do it without my family. Not one bit,” he said. “We have a large responsibility that is spread out. So not only do we raise purebred, registered black angus beef cattle, we also raise Duroc pigs and we raise meat chickens, we have horses, registered Alpine and Nubian dairy goats, donkeys and alpacas.”
“The goats are a secondary source but it’s primarily as a 4-H animal because my wife is a 4-H leader, so we always have several events throughout the year, usually once a month with several families and a bunch of children throughout the communities,” he said.
The love and husbandry of the animals by Mr. Tucker and his family is a clear theme on the ranch. If there’s an issue with an animal, it literally takes precedence over anything else, he said, including holidays, 30-below winter weather, and rain.
As he walks the property, his young daughter and a friend scamper about the goats, a baby goat tailing them and the family dog, Scooter, as they scurry away.
“We are close with our animals, meaning the animal husbandry and the animal isn’t just, yeah, we have cows, they’re out there when I’m ready to butcher them, go get them, butcher them and that is the end of it. No,” he said. “There’s a tight, strong bond with the animals and that’s why we, as a start to finish producer, make sure that the end product is the best product it could possibly be.”
That includes what he calls a stress-free environment.
If the cattle choose not to eat the feed provided by Mr. Tucker, they can wander freely with options of fresh grass or leaves. They meander to a stream they drink from, down through a wooded area where they use trees as scratching posts, a number of the trees snapped in half, under the weight of the beastly docile creatures.
“We let them grow at their natural pace. We don’t give them anything to enhance growth. No growth hormones, no antibiotics, no animal byproducts fed to them,” he said. “We don’t hold them in small areas and force feed them like feedlots do.”
Moreover, he said they do blood testing on all the animals to take the best traits from the best bull and the best dam, the mother, to breed that back again for the offspring. Those traits include breeding for short cattle in order to grow muscle, docility and marbling, the white veiny lines of fat that run throughout the interior of the steak, giving it its flavor.
Those steaks, like all his beef and pork, is cut at Red Barn Meats Inc, in Croghan.
Mr. Tucker said Red Barn is an important factor in his business because they use every part of the animal and cut the meat for the customer, which he said makes all the difference.
While grocers and other markets might charge less per pound, he said that is because there is significant fat that’s included in that weight, fat that will be thrown out. With his product, it’s cut, ready to be taken out of the package, seasoned, and put on the smoker or the grill.
Mr. Tucker said customers can find his product in a variety of places, including Martin’s Country Store in Bruston, the Pines Restaurant in Malone, and in Allen Ellis’s food truck, Gideon’s Galley, but the main place to buy his product is at the ranch.
Ideally customers should visit the website to see what they have to offer, figure out what they think they want and then dress warm for time in the freezer, he said
The ranch also recently set up a $375 three- or $700 six-month community-supported agriculture program, or CSA.
Each month the box will include a mixture of beef, chicken and pork with the amounts and cuts varying, except for the staple products of hamburger, pork sausage and chicken.
“It’s you supporting me, the agriculture, and by doing that I can offer you a better rate on our product because I know how much product I need,” Mr. Tucker said. “My CSA customers are getting taken care of first, because they have already prepaid (which) helps me pay for the processing of the animal. It takes the weight of that overhead off, big time.”
Every month, the value of the box is way more than what customers are paying for it, he said, calling it a financial hit he is willing to take because it’s already sold.
“That’s what sets us apart, that right to the end, right to the money exchange, it’s a very good relationship with the customer, right to that point where they are taking it out of the package and saying, “oh, it’s ready to go,’” Mr. Tucker said. “When people come to our farm to buy their beef, it’s not like the self-checkout line at Walmart. They usually bring their kids or their grandmother or their parents and then, instead of just buying a steak and hitting the road, they can play with the animals, they can go see the cows, they can go in and see the pigs and the alpacas.
“You need to know your farmer.” he said. “You need to go see your farmer. You don’t need to see the cashier at Walmart.”