Living the dream | Farm Progress

Joshua Stamper can cite the date and location when he felt in his heart that one day, he was going to own a farm in northern Minnesota with his wife, Alison.

“July 3, 2006, is the exact day I fell in love with Lake Superior,” he recalls. He and Alison, avid outdoor enthusiasts, were visiting the Boundary Waters — a first for Joshua. He was so moved by the greater North Shore experience that the couple started planning to one day own land up north — and to operate a small livestock farm. Just over a decade later, they bought their dream farm and moved there with their sons, Jasper and Griffin.

“We [looked at a map and] drew a square around the area where we wanted to buy a farm,” Alison adds. “We are in that square today.”

Joshua had a serendipitous encounter about six years ago with a northern Minnesota farm owner, whom he met while mountain bike riding in Utah. They kept in touch. More than a year ago, the Stampers posted on social media about looking at property south of Duluth. The farmer saw that and contacted Joshua, asking if they wanted to buy his farm.

In November 2021, the Stampers bought YKer Acres, a pasture-based livestock farm established by former owners Matt and Sara Weik. YKer (pronounced Why-ker) Acres has been well-known as a producer of high-quality heritage pork and beef among restaurant owners and other customers in Duluth and the Twin Cities.

“We are excited to continue to provide the best pork and beef from animals that spend their lives walking on the soil of the earth as God intended,” Joshua says.

Animal care is No. 1

Visitors to the rolling 160-acre farm west of Wrenshall, see firsthand those back-to-basics livestock husbandry practices. The Stampers raise around 400 pigs a year, a mix of three pork heritage breeds—English Large Black, Tamworth, and Hampshires with some Mangalitsa influence. Each breed is known for special characteristics. The sows farrow well in colder weather, thanks to a hairy coat from the Mangalitsa influence. The Large Black is extremely docile and has an average litter of 11 piglets. And the Tamworth genetics bring forward commendable depth of side. The Hampshires are stockier and faster-growing, with litters averaging seven piglets.

Sows farrow twice a year, in late spring and in the fall, in large pens inside a three-sided barn. They stay there for two weeks and then are moved outside with their piglets and rotated as cohort among paddocks, roughly 3 acres and smaller in size. The pigs need that sunshine, fresh air and room to root, Stamper says. They are fed a balanced ration and a steady stream of cull produce from local organic farms and food banks. Piglets are weaned in about 30 days.

In winter, larger pigs head for the barn, and smaller pigs reside outside in poly domes. Deep bedding in all housing becomes a low-grade compost pile, heating up and keeping pigs warm.

“It’s fun to see them inside the poly domes, where it can get 65 degrees [F] in winter,” Joshua says. “The pigs are eating a balanced ration, eating more and getting fatter. They are our ‘tundra seals.’”

Their version of animal husbandry follows traditional practices outlined in quality assurance programs with the daily added protocol of animal observation they call “cozy patrol.” Joshua coined the term to describe a lesson learned from a college animal science professor who talked about observing “dis-ease” — an animal not at ease. That stuck with him.

“After meeting their basic needs with water, food and environment, we cruise the farm twice a day, looking at our animals,” he says. “Otherwise, we let them do them.” Full-time herdsman Sam Hatch and part-time farmhand Matt Rengo help provide the animal care required on the farm.

The Stampers also raise 60 head of heritage Dexter cattle on a 120-acre pasture. Most cattle are sold as shares, but they also sell primal cuts and ground beef to butchers and restaurants.

Ready for market

Two separate businesses operate under the YKer name. The Stampers own and operate the farm. Brian Merkel, a butcher, buys the farm’s meat and sells it through the YKer Meat Co. Merkel has a strong background in whole-animal butchery, and drying and curing meat. Also at the meat company is Hans Bjorkland, a classically trained chef, who creates soups and other prepared products based on lesser-used parts of the animal. All meat sold at YKer is clean-label — no preservatives are used.

Product is marketed year-round through roughly 40 wholesale accounts up the North Shore and in the Twin Cities. The Stampers rely on Frank Lundeen to handle sales and distribution. YKer also sells curated subscription boxes of pork and beef, as well as custom shares to customers through its website.

“It’s a staggering amount of work that is only possible with the team we have,” Joshua says. Every week during warm weather and every other week during the winter, the farm crew is shipping livestock to slaughter. Still, they are looking ahead; and if they grow the business, they may add a mill to manufacture their own livestock feed.

“Maybe we could partner with a farmer for non-GMO corn and soybeans,” Joshua adds.

A place for family

A major factor in buying the farm was for their family, Alison says. Both wanted their children to have the experience of growing up on the farm. A city gal from Tennessee, Alison prefers an active outdoor lifestyle and has hiked the Appalachian Trail. Joshua, a North Carolina native, grew up on a small livestock farm and commercial apiary and earned his bachelor’s degree in agriculture and his master’s degree in agronomy. He has worked for a large seed company and with the University of Minnesota Extension as an irrigation specialist. Currently, he is the pesticide and fertilizer division manager with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

“Our products are definitely a specialty that you want to slow down and savour,” Joshua says. “I believe you can taste the difference with an animal that is not stressed and is allowed to meet physical maturity. That’s the basics of ‘cozy patrol’ — food, water, shelter — and you want to see them moving. If they are not moving and expressing natural behaviors, they are not going to be the big, fine things that our customers know and love. We want our animals to live their best life.”

For more information on the farm and its products, visit ykeracres.com.

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