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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Meet sustainable yak farmer John Hooper

June 13, 2009

June 11, 2009


Without a doubt, buying meat, veggies, fruit, and dairy from a certified organic rancher and/or farmer is a health-conscious consumer’s first and best choice.


But what if a meat producer is too small to justify the cost and time involved in the process of becoming certified? What if that same producer uses organic methods…sustainable practices, in other words…to raise his cattle, poultry, or produce? Should he get your food dollar?


Absolutely…with this essential proviso: Ask questions like these before you buy. Does he or she use chemicals or artificial hormones? Are the animals allowed to roam free and graze on healthy grasses? If you’re satisfied with the answers you're given---that her meats or produce don’t contain unhealthy inputs, or the cattle or poultry don’t live on an unhealthy feedlot---by all means, plunk down the asking price.


Our grassfed beef comes from a certified organic producer. Occasionally, though, I like another tasty, lean red meat variety, yak, by name. Because yak farmers have small herds, it’s unlikely any time soon that their operations will be profitable enough that they'll opt to go certified organic.


We're members of an organic food co-op that carries yak raised by John Hooper, whose farm is located near St. Joseph, Minnesota. I talked with him yesterday, and asked questions. Here’s what he told me. (By the way, I was satisfied with his answers.)


For many years, John, a Vietnam War veteran, worked shoeing horses. Then he became a cattle hoof trimmer. His business boomed, good for him but bad for the beef industry whose feedlot operations increased significantly. Unlike pasture-raised cattle, confined cattle need that service because they’re unable to naturally maintain their hooves themselves. John eventually made the move into alternative farming, and selected yaks as the ideal animals to raise. That was 12 years ago.


John's herd of 80 purebred and crossbed yaks graze on nutritious grasses six months out of the year. He supplements their diet with meadow hay for the rest of the year when they’re not able to graze on pasture. The hay is not organic, but, he assured me, it hasn’t been treated with herbicides or other chemicals; nor does he use chemicals or antibiotics on his animals. A sustainable operation of the organic model, to be sure. His farm sits on 86 acres, and he rents another 40 in pastureland.


Yaks are native to the Himalayan Mountains of Tibet where they’ve thrived for thousands of years. They’re never confined, and graze year-round. Their constitution allows them to live outdoors, even in the coldest temps, much like those of the U.S.’s Upper Midwest climates where yaks now live on some 100-plus farms. Though yaks came to the U.S. a hundred years ago, raising them came into its own only 20 years ago. John estimates that only 10 to 15 farmers belonging to the International Yak Association---he’s president---raise yaks commercially.


In 2003, Minneapolis-based Land of Lakes approached John to ask him if he would be willing to serve as a consultant to a Chinese dairy on the Tibetan Plateau that produces yak milk. He jumped at the chance, and spent a month in that role. While there, he saw how yaks live in their native environment.


In the U.S., demand for yak hasn’t skyrocketed as it has for other meats, elk and bison, for example. John views that as a good thing. He prefers that the slower growth keeps pace with the demand, and hopes that both remain steady while the public gains an awareness and taste for yak meat.


Speaking of taste, what does yak taste like? If you like beef, you'll like yak. If you’ve eaten bison (buffalo), transitioning to yak will be a better eating experience. It’s leaner, low in fat and cholesterol.


Yaks, generally a gentle breed if raised humanely, are cousins to beef cattle with whom they’re successfully cross-bred. John cross-breeds some of his herd, but keeps purebreds, as well. The cross-breeds mature more quickly, he says, meaning he can bring them to market that much sooner. They’re almost 100% equal to pure yak meat in taste and nutrition.


Like cows and sheep, yaks are ruminants. Their four stomachs allow them to process the omega-3 and vitamin and mineral-rich grasses and forbs they graze on for their own good health, and ours. It’s highly unlikely that grassfed animals like these will ever pose an E.coli threat to consumers. Cattle fed diets high in grains, which ruminants have difficulty digesting, pose a much greater danger for E. coli.


John Hooper sells yak meat, from an air-conditioned unit he drives, at three area farmers markets in the summer; to food co-ops; and to several nearby restaurants. He also fills online orders for yakburgers, brats, steaks, roasts, tenderloins, and jerky, though he’s quick to note that shipping costs favor customers who live in the five-state region of Wisconsin, Iowa, South and North Dakota, and Nebraska. Yak's nutritional profile, however, offers a 95-97% lean meat, making it low in both cholesterol and fat. It’s definitely worth trying.


Cows are known for their milk, but did you know that yaks also produce milk? It, too, can be made into butter, cheese and yogurt. John made cheese, an easy process, he says, about five years ago. It keeps indefinitely. The dairy foods are popular in China.


Be sure to take a look at these general cooking tips and recipes for an optimal yak-eating experience.

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