Imagine the sense of satisfaction Lt. Col. Kevin Schenker, stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan, felt when, while seated in a dentist chair awaiting treatment, the dentist walked in eating one of his beef sticks. Hearing Kevin’s wife, Cherie, tell the story, you can’t help but feel the pride in her voice.
The dentist came in talking about how good the beef stick she was eating tasted, and Kevin couldn’t help but smile. When asked why he was amused, he needed to only motion to his nametag and the label on the beef stick. That beef stick came from one of his own Kansas grassfed steers.
The Schenkers’ story is one of farm life, traditions passed down from one generation to the next, and an altruistic spirit they take into their niche-market business that is not often found or able to be applied in modern agriculture.
The basis for it all is a grassfed meat operation, located on a farm near McCune, Kansas (population 400 on a good day), that was started by Cherie’s great-grandfather. What separates the Schenker farm from others that are emerging – as the grassfed, back-to-the-land movement becomes a more popular trend across the nation – is that the Schenkers, through Adopt-a-Platoon and their own efforts and out-of-pocket expenses, have developed a method for shipping their products to soldiers stationed overseas.
“One of the coolest things for me is when I get – I call it fan mail – a letter from some private first class who’s probably 19 years old, thanking me for a touch of home,” Cherie says. “He’s over there so far away with a lot of people he’s never met before, he’s young, and it is just something to remind him of home.”
The appreciation that Cherie and her farm express for the service of overseas soldiers is more than lip-service – or even its meat products. Kevin joined the National Guard when he was 17 years old and will retire in 2011, having spent 31 years in the armed forces.
During his deployment, Cherie, their three children and numerous staff members have kept the operation flourishing. Schenker Family Farms (www.Schenker Farms.com) experienced triple-digit growth in 2009; a sign that a healthy market of consumers throughout America values the quality of the meat they eat and the location of the production process.
Cherie attributes another factor in their success: a customer service ethic that drives a large percentage of repeat business. While the Schenkers sell raw clover honey, some preserves and other products (Cherie holds up a femur from a cow, a chew-toy for dogs that is selling well right now), their primary business is in the meat. And of that, about 95 percent is shipped, with about 80 percent of that shipped within U.S. borders.
A portion of their product is hand-delivered; Cherie says there’s nothing quite like that personal interface with the public, delivering items directly to the door. The Schenkers have increased the delivery part of the business to include routes in Wichita, Kansas City and Topeka, with another set to go to Tulsa before long.
Even with customers she never meets, Cherie talks about how far the family business goes to win their repeat customers.
“I had a woman call me, and she wanted to send her husband some steaks for Valentine’s Day (he’s serving in Iraq). She really didn’t have the money to send him the steaks, so we worked with her to find something that would meet her budget and meet her needs,” Cherie says. “She just thought that was great. I was on the phone with her almost 45 minutes trying to help her make some decisions. … She was able to do something neat for him on Valentine’s Day, and we got to be a part of that.”
That brings up the overseas shipping process the Schenkers have put into practice, making it possible to ship frozen products to a desert country thousands of miles away.
The idea arose when the family found out Kevin was being deployed and would be away for his birthday. “My wonderful husband could live on ribeye steaks, baked potatoes and salad for the rest of his life,” Cherie says, “I wanted to be able to send him some ribeyes for his birthday.”
So began development of a special shipping container for keeping meats frozen longer. The Schenkers worked with a company in Georgia to develop a package within a package of sorts, from a biodegradable material that has a much higher R-value than Styrofoam. The new shipping container can keep meat products frozen for up to 23 days; quite remarkable when you consider it isn’t uncommon to experience a 123-degree July day in Afghanistan.
With this new means of safe delivery, Kevin wouldn’t be the only soldier overseas to receive delicious meats from the Kansas prairie. Several years back, Cherie saw a television clip on the news about Adopt-a-Platoon, and before long the family farm adopted its first soldier. Imagine how lucky you’d feel, grilling up a ribeye steak in place of normal Army rations, and that’s quite a difference-maker for an 18-year-old man or woman.
Since that first soldier, the Schenkers have taken responsibility for lifting the spirits of a group of soldiers with their grassfed ground beef, steaks, brats, snack sticks and other products. At present, they support 15 soldiers from Kansas – all stationed in northern Iraq.
All care-packages sent to these soldiers are donated, and the Schenkers also make it as affordable as possible for family members and other loved ones to send their products directly to APOs overseas.
“Everything we sell to family members, we sell at a pretty steep discount,” Cherie says. “It’s well below wholesale. We’re covering our costs, almost.”
More than likely, that commitment to high quality meat isn’t going to stop with Kevin and Cherie. Before them, Cherie’s grandfather was somewhat ahead of his time, recognizing the importance of a good quality of life for his animals that would in turn sustain him.
He raised grassfed cattle and fed some home-raised corn on this same farm back in the 1940s and ’50s. “He had some very definite, old-fashioned values about how you treat your animals, and that doing what’s best for the animals comes back around to what’s best for you.”
Cherie’s grandfather’s values are apparent on the Schenker Family Farms sign, which indicates their operation is both Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Naturally Grown. Make no mistake – it’s not like the cattle are just turned out on fescue either, they’re raised on four specialty grasses grazed in rotation, as well as turnips planted in the fields. The turnips are high in protein, and cattle love the turnip tops. When the turnips decompose into the earth, it’s a huge boost for the soil as well, a natural fertilizer.
So the legacy continues, and its products are enjoyed internationally and at home. One day, the Schenkers hope their children will continue in the business; Wyatt, age 10, started his foray into livestock production this summer by building his own chicken coop and selling free-range eggs at local farmers’ markets.
Such a devotion to quality meat production, high husbandry standards, and sharing all of it with others has become a profitable business for the Schenkers. Cherie also enjoys knowing she is producing leaner and healthier meat for her family and customers. Their ability to offer some comfort to combat troops deployed overseas only adds to the rewards – particularly since Schenker Family Farms knows all too well how isolated family members can feel while serving their country. But just like that day Kevin found himself in the dentist’s chair, a little Middle America grassfed beef can narrow that gap of isolation, at least for the time it takes to eat a beef stick or, better yet, a ribeye.
By the time this article went to press, Kevin Schenker had returned home to his Kansas farm. While he does enjoy good steaks and a warm bed, he’s most thankful just to be home with his family. – Editors
A big fan of the ribeye himself, Caleb couldn’t leave Schenker Family Farms without a pound of Rocky Mountain Oysters to share with his buddies.
Caleb Regan and his wife, Gwen, live in rural Douglas County, Kansas, where they enjoy hunting, fishing, and raising and growing as much of their own food as they can. Caleb can’t imagine a better scenario than getting to work on a rural lifestyle magazine as a profession, and then living that same lifestyle right in the heartland of America. Connect with him on Google+.