John and Jane Leeser's house sits on one of the highest points in "Marion County, and the visitor who pulls up their drive is greeted by an eastern view full of rolling hills that extends all the way to the Mississippi River and beyond.
And it's not just the view that welcomes you. With a cat sunning herself on the front steps and the big family dog there to greet you like a long-lost friend, you'll quickly feel like one of the family. The kitchen is spacious but snug, and it feels like the kind of room that hosts family bonding — and has since the 1800s when it was built.
As we sit at the kitchen table, John tells the story of how he first became involved in U.S. Wellness Meats and of his family's long history as cattle farmers. Both his father and grandfather were farmers, and it didn't take John long to take to the family business. When he was 11, John says, he marched right up to his father, with his fists planted firmly to his hips and declared, "Dad, I'm ready to raise my own 4-H steer!" to which his father replied, "Sure, son, but if you're going to raise one, you may as well raise 50." "And he was right," continues John, and the rest is pretty much history.
"Cows are not designed to eat grain; they're designed to convert fiber into amino acids"
Today, John and Jane own their own farm and their son Grant works as an associate, helping them with the family business when not dabbling in metal work, his first love. Daughter Whitney has the farming bug, too: growing up on her parents' farm she raised 700 to 900 chickens each year.
Despite their history raising cattle with mainstream, grain-fed techniques, the Leesers have embraced the grass-fed model because of its sustainability and because they want to give consumers choices.
"Cows are not designed to eat grain; they're designed to convert fiber into amino acids,"John notes when describing his move from conventional farming. "For too long, the average American has only had one choice when it comes to the meat they buy—it's whatever the supermarket will sell them—which is grain-fed beef 99.9% of the time. What we do empowers the consumer by allowing them to buy directly from the farmers, make a healthy choice, and to support sustainable, environmentally-friendly practices. Plus, our model keeps local farms, like ours economically healthy to support the local community."
But the Leesers lives aren't all farming.
There's a bronze rose in the middle of the table, a gift from Grant to Jane. Yes, he gets his creativity from his mother, who is an expert jewelry maker, and no, he doesn't plan on making any others—this one was special, a gift just for his mom.
And these days, John is just as likely to channel his energies into his other habits as he is to tend to his animals. But, as he is clearly in possession of the energy of men half his age, it doesn't surprise that John manages to find time to manage more than a hundred head of cattle for U.S. Wellness Meats while still baking more than 10,000 cookies for his annual holiday fundraiser. Yes, 10,000 cookies. Right out of his own kitchen. It's no big deal, he assures us, he's got the recipe and baking down to a science. Truth be told, the one year he got a little help from some women in the community (who unwisely asked, "How hard can it be?"), the whole system broke down.