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Freeman Family Find out how part-time farmer and businessman Matt Freeman’s life has come full circle. Shown here with wife, Jessie, and children Colbie and Cooper

Article & photos by JoAnn Pipkin.

He says he’s weathered the storm.

On the heels of two consecutive years of drought and a dismal economy waning to see daylight, Matt Freeman knows service is really what it’s all about.

As a part-time farmer and business owner, Freeman admits sometimes, “You just jump in and get your feet wet.”

And, that’s exactly what this young farmer and entrepreneur did. Freeman and wife, Jessie, are now in their 11th year as owners of Lucky J Steakhouse and Arena, on the southeast edge of Carthage in Jasper County.

As a producer of stock for the roping industry, Freeman’s endeavors are intertwined and yet all depend heavily on customer service.

“You have to strive to have the best (product) you can,” Freeman explains. “It’s all a customer driven industry and you have to provide customer service.”

Not Your Typical Beef Producer

In all actuality, Matt Freeman’s livestock are considered beef cattle but his aren’t your grandpa’s Hereford/Angus cross.

Freeman’s Longhorn/Corriente cross cattle are produced strictly for the roping industry. “I usually have about 150-200 roping steers on hand depending on the time of year.”

While some of the stock he raises himself, Freeman also purchases steers or heifers weighing about 400 pounds. The cattle go through what is called a “breaking in period” where they are trained to run straight and handle correctly when the header ropes the animal.

Freeman says roping cattle will only last so long before they get too slow or too big for the job. Usually, 600-700 pounds is the cut-off weight.

“The ideal roping steer would be about a year of age and weigh 400-450 pounds with horns to his ear or a little past,” Freeman explains.

Freeman’s love for roping began when he was a kid. He started out team roping with his older brother. “We didn’t really grow up on a farm,” Freeman says. As the Freeman boy’s interest grew in horses and roping, their father purchased some land and the boys helped care for a small herd of Longhorn cows.

“We grew up competing in rodeos,” Freeman says. “We went somewhere virtually every weekend.”

Throughout high school, Freeman says he worked on a couple of different farms and even had his own lawn mowing business for a time.

After high school though, Freeman says work got in the way of play.

The young cowboy went to work for John Bartosh, who owned the Four State Stockyards in Diamond, and who would later become his father-in-law.

Freeman’s been to auctioneer school and called the cow sale at Joplin Regional Stockyards for a time. He also partnered with Bartosh in a commission company at Four State. He’s been an order buyer. And, he’s owned a few cows along the way.

How May We Serve You?

It would seem Freeman’s love for the roping industry, though, is what brought him full circle.

After Bartosh sold Four State Stockyards, in 2000 he built the Lucky J Steakhouse and Arena in Carthage. Freeman worked for him there, managing the

Lucky J Steakhouse Restaurant Lucky J Steakhouse on the southeast edge of Carthage is known for its hand-cut steaks and family atmosphere.

arena end of the business.

About a year after opening, with Bartosh ready to sell, the Freeman’s jumped head first into the restaurant and arena business.

“We really at the time didn’t know what we were getting into,” Freeman admits. “I had never worked in a restaurant before.”

Today, both Matt and Jessie Freeman are hands-on in their Lucky J Restaurant. While a couple of managers assist them, Jessie handles the accounting and book work with Matt tackling the food ordering. And if the cook doesn’t show, it’s not at all uncommon to find Matt back in the kitchen. In all, the restaurant employs about 30, with 8-10 being full-time.

The restaurant, which serves everything from hand-cut steaks to chicken, burgers and pork chops, is open 5 p.m. -10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Lunch is served weekends during special events as well.

Freeman says the restaurant business has grown steadily every year. “We’re really locally driven,” he says. “The locals just enjoy coming out here and it’s different than any other place you could go. It’s not a chain restaurant.”

He continues, “We have so many regulars. We have a great crew. A lot of our employees have been here a long time. When the staff knows the customers, that’s important. People like that atmosphere.”

Saddle Up and Ride

Despite a sluggish economy, Freeman says folks are still coming out to enjoy their hobbies. “They may not be able to go and do it every weekend,” he explains.

From the first of September through April, weekly activities line the calendar at the Lucky J Arena.

Freeman with cattle Matt Freeman raises Longhorn/Corriente roping cattle.

Cowboy mounted shootings, barrel racing and team roping fill the arena through the week while the facility is leased about 45 weekends each year for events such as horse shows and clinics. Freeman added a 150-stall barn about six years ago, which he says helped expand the weekend clientele.

“You have to strive to have the best events you can,” Freeman notes. “It’s all a customer driven industry and you have to provide customer service.”

Freeman says the roping industry is huge in the U.S. and the number of team ropers is what’s driven it. He explains a handicap system put in place by the U.S. Team Roping Championships which rates every roper helps put all participants in competition on the same level.

“This has skyrocketed the industry,” Freeman states.

“Team roping is a sport for any age and gender,” he explains. “A wide (age and gender) range of people compete in the sport because of the handicap system.”

A Little Help Along the Way

Freeman turned to FCS Financial a little less than two years ago as he sought to expand his cattle operation.

Looking to purchase additional acreage, Freeman shopped around on interest rates and found the best deal at FCS Financial.

“I had never done business with FCS Financial before but had heard about them,” Freeman says. “A lot of local farmers utilize their services.”

Freeman says the real estate purchase has enabled him to retain some of the steers and realize more salvage value from them once they are finished in the roping industry. He also hopes to keep some of his heifers and start a cowherd, separate from the roping steers.

“When beef prices spiked, the roping cattle really didn’t follow them for a while,” Freeman explains. “Yet, those in the roping industry realized they couldn’t leave a Longhorn bull on those Longhorn cows and sell the calf for $400. They realized they could put a beef bull on those cows and sell the calf for $600 or $700 at 9 months of age.”

Still, making a profit on a roping steer really isn’t the name of the game, Freeman explains. “I’m happy if I can get out of him what I’ve got in him. You’re not buying these cattle to make money on them.”

In the Right Place at the Right Time

Finding balance in the midst of managing a farm and two businesses, Freeman admits, isn’t always easy.

“We live right here,” Freeman says, “and that’s really nice sometimes and sometimes you would like to be further away. We can come and go a lot.”

Freeman says his own children —son Cooper, 9, and daughter, Colbi, 7, — are competing in rodeo events themselves. “The good thing is the kids can do a lot of those activities right here at home.”

All in all, Freeman says being in the right place at the right time helped him land where he is today. “We had the opportunity to buy the business that a lot of folks wouldn’t have had. And, the local support has been awesome.”

Freeman is adamant that the people are what drives the business. “You’ve got to have good help,” he emphasizes. “You have to have a service and an atmosphere that the people will enjoy.”

Freeman notes that right now is a very challenging time in the roping steer industry. Good cattle to rope are tough to come by, he says. “This is industry wide, not just here.”

“It’s really come to a head this year,” Freeman continues. “I usually would have my cattle bought by now for fall, and I don’t have half of what I need.”

That said, Freeman says he will continue to shop around for roping stock. “I may have to just give a little more for the cattle than I want to. It all boils down to having to make more money off the events.”

Freeman, though, remains optimistic about the beef industry as a whole. “We’re going through a tough time right now, but I think the stock cows will be worth as much or more next spring as we saw them bring at their highs this year before the drought.”

So, this hometown cowboy comes full circle. Maybe it was his love for the roping industry itself. Maybe it was being in the right place at the right time. Or maybe he was just a little “lucky.” Still, Matt Freeman knows the value of customer service in raising roping steers, in putting on quality events and in serving up a hand-cut steak.

“Whether you’re farming or running a restaurant, you have to have people you can trust.”

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