Johanna VanDyke is very quick to say she is living her dream, and she bubbles with enthusiasm as she talks about it. Her dream begins at 7:30 AM, rain or shine, hot or cold, as she starts her farm chores. Chores that consist of caring for the beef cattle, pigs, and broiler chickens she offers to Market Wagon customers as meat cuts from her Chicken Bacon Ranch.
Johanna grew with six siblings on a dairy farm in Marne, Michigan. At 19, she started work at a lumber mill. Later, her career took her to Florida for a short time before the farm's call brought her back to Michigan. Now at age 30, she owns 10 acres and leases another 50 where she raises the animals that she is very proud to provide as family meals.
For the last three years, she has steadily grown a meat business founded on raising animals in an environment that allows them to be animals, not a factory product. She raises her cattle on lush pasture with plenty of areas to exercise and trees to find shade. She hand-feeds grain while they still enjoy the fields. Her pigs are under roof are not "confined"; each of the 50 pigs has a 30-foot square growing area. Unlike large scale broiler/frier production Johanna's birds are raised with plenty of exercise room and air circulation. She hopes to run outdoor exercise runs for the summer.
She has not gone into this business without doing considerable research to select breeds of animals that taste good, grow at a steady pace, and are not rushed to market. While the 24 Angus-Holstein-Simmental steers are ready for market at 16 months of age and 1300 pounds, she evaluates them regularly and "just knows" when they are ready, and a specific age is immaterial.
She judges similarly the 50 pigs, which she acknowledges are her favorite animals on the farm. The pigs, likewise, are breeds selected to produce flavorful meat. She laughs when she describes the breeding and calls them "mutts" because she has selected breeds that provide different meat quality characteristics. The most prominent is the Berkshire heritage breed known for its outstanding taste from marbling.
Chicken Bacon Ranch's bone-in and boneless pork chops have been very popular Market Wagon items. "I have been pleased with the sales; they did well this summer," she said. "Market Wagon has definitely helped us meet new customers."
Her 100 broiler chickens are a cornish game chicken cross and provide a 5-6 pound dressed bird. While this is the same breed as you find in the grocery, Johanna wanted to see a taste difference.
"We purchased a chicken at the grocery and smoked it and one of ours the same way and then did a blind taste with some of our friends.", she said. The results? The Chicken Bacon Ranch bird was definitely more tender; its meat fell off the bone and had a better flavor.
While Chicken Bacon Ranch may seem uncomplicated , raising animals that depend on is not always easy. Johanna has had to battle disease and predators. Raccoons invaded the layer operation killing a considerable number of her hens. The broiler operation has also been plagued with disease and she works diligently with local veterinarians and poultry specialists to find the cause and a treatment. But she keeps striving to make her dream a reality.
As Johanna makes her rounds each morning, feeding animals and having a personal interaction with them, she says, "It's been my lifelong dream to share the experience and wholesomeness of homegrown goodness."