Loving the healthy life on the Rockin' J Ranch
Loving the healthy life on the Rockin' J
Bill and Therese Jenkins would probably have been voted
‘least likely to become farmers’
by their Fort Smith friends.
So what are they doing on Mount Gayler?
“I know some our friends must think we’ve lost our minds,” Therese Jenkins confessed. “I don’t know how to tell them I could just sit and watch chickens all day.”
It is quite a change for someone who made a career erasing lines and imperfections from women’s faces. She still does, but less often since she and her husband fell in love with their property on top of Mount Gayler near Winslow, Ark.
These days, more often, she’s watching her chickens or their herd of genetically pure Rotokawa Devon cattle graze on the grass of their mountaintop pastures. Even the cattle are pretty, dark red against the green. Duke, the bull, is often under a shade tree near their driveway.
“I guess I’ve gone from Botox to bovines,” she quipped, laughing easily at herself. She and Bill, her husband, look pretty natural out on the back deck of a mobile home on the place they’ve named the Rockin’ J Ranch. Their view is out over the Boston Mountains, where beautiful tree-covered ridges go on as far as they can see. It’s where they may build a house someday, now that they’ve developed a consuming interest in grass-fed beef and the “local food” movement.
To make matters more interesting, the ranch is adjacent to an Arkansas landmark, the Mount Gayler gift shop. With the opening of Interstate 540 from Fort Smith to Fayetteville, the gift shop and its neighbor, the former Burns Gables restaurant, suffered from declining traffic and eventually closed. Both are still boarded up and the tower is locked behind a fence.
After buying their original place, Bill and Therese acquired a few more parcels of land to the south and then, they were right next to the historic Mount Gayler property – the old gift shop, gas station built of local stone, observation tower and a spring-fed lake. They bought it, too.
There is a scheme behind it all, really. They can explain. Bill and Therese both grin as if they’ve already taken a pretty good ribbing over their unexpected new ventures.
“I just wanted a good steak,” Therese said, not entirely kidding.
“Well, actually, it all started when I was the successful bidder on a land auction of some property near Winslow,” said Bill, who is a petroleum engineer. “It was just an investment, a solid asset.”
At the same time, Therese was looking for a way to improve her health and had decided to change to a natural diet. She was losing a fight against heavy fatigue and had auto-immune symptoms.
“After medicine really didn’t help me, I did a lot of research and decided to cut out all processed food,” she said. “It worked. I believe I have transformed myself back to health through eating good food.”
When the Jenkins found that they had excellent pastures, they decided to try producing their own grass-fed beef with the help of an experienced ranch manager. They bought a few head of Angus cattle.
“Then I went back to researching,” she said, “Yes, I get manic about it – and found these Devon cattle raised in New Zealand that are completely, genetically grass-fed. They have never eaten anything but grass.”
Providence would have it that one of only three U.S. operations of Rotokawan Devon cattle was in Rosebud, Ark.
“That was another ‘God moment’ for me,” she said. “I e-mailed him and we just went from there!”
“We started with one bull and three cows,” Bill said. “We really just meant to have a breeding program, to sell bull calves and heifers.”
In their one-thing-leads-to-another way, the Jenkins expanded to an embryo program.
“We got 50 weaned calves delivered in November. With that many animals, we are already one of the larger producers of Devon cattle in the U.S.,” he said.
This fall, the Jenkins will produce their first beef from their Angus cattle cross-bred with Devon. The meat from grass-feed beef is fine-grained, tender and flavorful. They hope their grass-fed beef will, like wine, be influenced by the terroir, as winemakers use the French word – some characteristics of the environment where the food (or wine) was grown.
Already, all the grass-fed meat producers the Jenkins know – and buy from – are having trouble keeping up with demand.
She buys from other local like-minded farmers for the poultry, eggs and pork they eat and yes, she’s eyeing that old landmark gift shop they just happen to own.
“We envision a small restaurant and local food market,” she said.
The Jenkins are only the third owners of the Mount Gayler property. They bought it from the Bellis family, whose hard work made it famous.
In the early 1930s, Ed Bellis and his wife and children bought the mountaintop from the Gayler family. They lived in tents while building a stone-constructed store and gas station to serve the newly paved highway. Mount Gayler became a popular stop. Bellis prospered and continued to build, adding a wooden, then steel, observation tower and a miniature train around the lake behind the gas station. Bellis descendants were still running Mount Gayler when I-540 opened in 1999.
With a son still in school in Fort Smith, the Jenkins have not moved to the mountain. But with Bill in boots most days and Therese gathering eggs and cooking vegetables from their garden, they may someday.
Besides, she watches the chickens as if they were her soap opera
“It’s my entertainment!” she said. “When we got a rooster, those hens went from a convent of little ladies to a brothel, I tell you.”
– By Lynn Wasson with Reba Mize