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McClarens under Haue Valley sign.As the hustle and bustle of Interstate 44 nears the gateway city, a quiet highway leads us to the south. The path winds through the countryside, limbs tossed aside from an early morning summer rainstorm.

Hiding in the shadows of the urban metropolis, rural Missouri here takes on its own identity. Well-kept houses surrounded by small parcels of land seem to be the theme. Still, agriculture thrives in this environment.

Turning down the dead-end road, a picturesque palette of early summer welcomes the visitor to a little creek-side valley. Crooked Creek Beef calls it home.

Bill and Linda McLaren have made a mark for their Crooked Creek Beef in the quiet countryside near Pacific, Mo., just southwest of St. Louis. It’s here that Bill has come to call himself an agricultural evangelist. True advocates for agriculture, the McLarens link producer with consumer in all their ventures. From farm-raised beef to their barn-themed wedding venue, the McLarens help agriculture thrive amid their urban environment.

Carrying Out a Legacy

Bill McLaren and Linda Young met while students at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Both have had a passion for agriculture their entire lives. Bill’s degree is in animal science and ag economics, while Linda’s is in ag education. After they married, the couple spent some time in mid-Missouri near Sedalia, where Bill worked for Linda’s father on his row crop and hog farm and Linda taught for a few years. They moved to the St. Louis area in the early 1980s and have developed their passion for agriculture on the farm Bill’s grandfather settled in 1923.

Originally 120 acres, Bill tells how his grandfather passed away at a young age in 1936 while building the family home on the farm. It was the middle of the Great Depression and Bill’s grandmother raised four children on the farm. “There was no running water. No electricity,” he recalls. “The house didn’t have a roof on it yet. She finished the house, raised four kids, hand-milked the cows. She was a tough woman. We really appreciate this real estate.”

The McLaren’s operation includes a total of 300 owned acres at Crooked Creek. An additional 250 acres is owned just a stone’s throw from I-44 on Thornton Road. Bill’s great uncle, John Howe, originally owned it. Bill says his great uncle John, with only a fourth grade education, was a horticulturist who taught botany lab at his farm through St. Louis University. There, he grafted trees and planted more than 450 varieties of daffodils on the land that is now home to Haue Valley Weddings and Events.

“We enjoy the farm life,” Bill explains. “I tell people I am an urban rat.” Living not far from the St. Louis County line, the McLarens are 40 minutes from the Gateway Arch and Busch Stadium.
“We have to learn how to exist in our environment.”

From Conception to Consumption

The McLarens have had an interest in direct product marketing for nearly 20 years. Their early days found them among the first in the nation trying to sell premium pork to consumers. Bill says they traveled to Washington D.C. in an attempt to get a label to market their product.

“That was a difficult process,” he explains. “Direct marketing was not anything like what it is right now. Some of the common sense things you would say (about your product), you can’t.”
Thus, Bill says it has been a learning process along the way.

Today, the McLarens maintain a 120-head commercial cowherd and each year market about 70 head of steers as freezer beef direct to consumers and restaurants in the St. Louis area under the name Crooked Creek Beef.

McClarens calf“We’re trying to breed a premium product,” he explains. “Our tagline is ‘from conception to consumption.'"

The McLarens raise their own replacement females and purchase only registered bulls, although they do utilize timed artificial insemination technology.

“From the day that calf is conceived until the day it is consumed, we want to be managing it,” Bill notes. “We want to be looking at the end product.”

Their cowherd is about 75-80 percent Angus-based, and Bill is a strong believer in crossbreeding systems. Over the years, Angus and Hereford herd sires have been used, and the McLarens are also experimenting with the Braunvieh breed.

“I lose my ability to control the crossbreeding if we use a composite bull,” Bill maintains.

Their cattle are not “grain-fed” per se, according to Bill. Feeding less than 8 percent of the ration as rolled corn, he notes it is critical not to change the pH of the rumen. “We want to keep the rumen cellulose based.” Thus, the cattle consume a ration comprised of soy hulls, wheat mids, cottonseed hulls, Dakota Gold and corn gluten.

“We feed a ration that’s basically got all of the starch and sugar pulled out of it,” Bill explains.

Steers are processed at 12 to 14 months of age, cut up and individually packaged for sale. Knowing how to price their product is the real challenge, Bill says. “We’re trying to stay at a premium ahead of the fed cattle market, anticipating what it’s going to be six months from now.” He adds that pricing is especially difficult with today’s market and ground beef at all-time highs.

“We don’t want to do all of this work and not get a return on our time and labor,” he notes.

Crooked Creek Beef is dry-aged, according to Bill, giving the consumer a different experience. “You won’t open up a package of our meat and have moisture flow out of it like it does when it’s aged in cryovac.” The product is naturally tenderized to enhance the nutty beef flavor and dry aged a minimum of 18 days.

“We’re selling the sizzle,” Bill adds.

Currently, Bill says the market on ground beef is somewhat artificial because of the number of cull cows that have been sent to market as a result of drought. “If we start saving back heifers as a nation, our biggest problem is going to be running our customers off and never getting them back. We will have priced ourselves out of the market.”

The McLarens are careful with bull selection, noting they won’t buy a bull that doesn’t have expected progeny differences (EPDs), or hasn’t been properly tested and indexed.

Although they have typically selected for growth and ribeye, Bill maintains they don’t want to chase a trend. “We want a balanced animal.”

He does note that the IMF (intramuscular fat) EPD is becoming extremely important in their beef business. “As an industry, we need to remember there is an end-consumer – and that consumer drives the price of my calves.”

Last year, the McLarens participated in the Missouri Steer Feedout. The educational program, sponsored by MU Extension, is designed to help cattlemen evaluate the genetics and management of their calves as they influence feedlot performance and carcass characteristics. Three McLaren steers ranked in the top 10 out of 60 entries, quite a feat in their first year of entry.

“We have to measure,” Bill says. “If you don’t measure, you don’t know what kind of bull you need to buy. You don’t know what your end-product is.”

Diversity is the Key

When oldest daughter Kristin was married in an old stone church and held her reception at the McLaren’s farm, it seemed only natural that youngest daughter Kesha would follow suit—except Kesha hoped for a reception in the barn atop the hill at their Haue Valley farm.

“But, I wasn’t willing to pour concrete in the old stone barn to use one time,” Bill explains.

Construction was launched on the barn the week of Christmas in 2012. And, Kesha’s wedding was April 27, 2013. “We built it in four months, mostly on weekends with friends,” Bill explains of the renovation. “I’m very lucky. I have great people who work with me.”

The McLarens even built a sawmill in the midst of the barn renovation. Its purpose was to saw the red cedar that would be used as lumber in the freshly renovated barn.

Bill was still in his overalls completing the finishing touches of the barn the morning of Kesha’s wedding. He recalls a young woman who pulled up in her BMW asking if weddings were ever held in the barn. The rest is history—well sort of.

Additional renovations to get the facility up to public code took place following Kesha’s nuptials. The McLarens booked four weddings in the fall of 2013, and the venue already has just one date available for the rest of 2014. Only two Saturdays are open in 2015.

“I didn’t realize how much people wanted to get married in a barn,” Linda chimes in.

Bill McClaren with Carol Meyer, FCS Financial  loan officer. FCS Financial's Carol Meyer works with Bill McClaren outside the Haue Valley barn.

“We believe this is agritourism,” Bill explains. “We are selling an experience.”

Linda admits she doesn’t have much to do with the wedding venue. Kristin, who studied marketing in college, shares her vision for the property, which also now includes a small vineyard. Kristin lives with her husband and new son in Fair Grove, Mo., and provides social media, website and other marketing support for the farm’s businesses.

“We want to be relevant, not a flash in the pan,” Bill explains of their wedding venue. “Right now barn weddings are the rage. But, if they don’t stay the rage, we want to be able to compete at that next level.”

Looking to the future, Linda maintains there is room for growth at their Haue Valley farm. “Both of us have a passion for agriculture,” she says. “Knowing that agriculture is beyond the farm, I think there’s room for a corporate daytime venue. There is potential for something there beyond just weekend weddings.”

Haue Valley Weddings and Events venue is open air and hosts weddings about five and a half months out of the year, Bill says. Plans are already underway to enclose the facility, “but with class,” he says. “We want our competitors to have to run really fast to keep up. We want to be the leader.”

in their roots

Although relatively new customers to FCS Financial, the relationship is rich between the McLaren’s heritage and the ag lender.

Linda’s father was on the board of FCS Financial’s predecessor, Production Credit Association (PCA). Additionally, Bill had secured a loan through PCA when he lived in the Sedalia area and began raising hogs.

“Agriculture is their specialty,” Bill states. “When you need shoulder surgery, you don’t go see a podiatrist.”

With real estate and operating loans through FCS Financial, the McLarens work with Carol Meyer on their operation’s goals and needs.

“As a loan officer, it’s important for me to know what their goals are,” Meyer says. “They have goals, but they have realistic goals.” Because of their diversity, she says the McLarens could be used as a model for younger operators just starting out.

where the farm meets the city

Whether selling beef directly to consumers or hosting a wedding in their barn, the McLarens maintain that they are selling an experience.

“It’s really easy to go to the sale barn and talk cows to someone,” Bill says. “It’s a little bit harder to go to someone you don’t know, who doesn’t understand a cow and talk to them and win them over. Where we live, I think that is part of what we have to do to help the industry as a whole.”

Bill and Linda believe it’s important to stand up and beat agriculture’s drum. The U.S. has a safe food product, they maintain.

“You have to be an evangelist,” Bill touts. “You have to be willing to go out and talk to people.”

The husband and wife team bear the advocacy cross in their daily lives. They’ve been involved in the local Chamber of Commerce, serving on the board of directors and have served on the tourism board. McClarens are advocates for agriculture.Bill is on the Franklin County Planning and Zoning Board. He also chairs the beef committee for Missouri Farm Bureau, is on the national beef committee for American Farm Bureau and serves on the Franklin County Farm Bureau board.

“I think if you’ve been blessed, you need to participate,” he says.

The McLarens realize consumers likely won’t educate themselves. That said, they maintain Missouri Farmer’s Care is one of the greatest things that’s happened in Missouri agriculture. “The soybean farmer realizes he needs the hog farmer,” Bill explains. “The corn farmer realizes he needs the cattle farmer. They all need each other. They all need to work together and agribusiness needs everybody.”

Whether they are giving hay rides to children that live in the suburban development next to their wedding venue or harvesting hay off of 10-acre parcels of land in the area, the McLarens strive to be good neighbors, working day in and day out to link producer with consumer.

And, with less than one percent of the U.S. population involved in agriculture, the McLarens realize the value in telling their story. “We’ve got to explain to people what we do as agriculturalists so they will help us and help allow us to do what we do,” Bill explains.

Passion for agriculture beams through their words. “It’s really important to try and preserve agriculture,” Bill maintains. “We have to stand up and tell our story.”
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