Raising the steaks

A kind approach leads to the best cuts for Waseda Farms

Posted on Jun 1, 2017 :: Cover Story
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

It took a couple of heart attacks and two battles with lymphoma for Tom Lutsey to change his diet. When his doctors told him he needed to cut back on red meat, though, he didn’t reach for a turkey burger, he turned it into a challenge: “What if I eat healthier red meat?” The evolution of Waseda Farms began with that simple question. Tom soon learned that feeding cattle a diet of grass and treating them well leads to healthier — and tastier — beef. This insight served as the basis for the endeavor Tom started and his son, Matt, president of the company, has grown.

At its inception, Waseda Farms consisted of Tom selling beef out of chest freezers, mostly to his friends. “They loved to joke at the time, my dad was selling half animals to his friends,” Matt says. “One friend said, ‘You know, Tom, at some point you’re going to run out of friends to sell beef to.’”

That customer base has grown considerably over the years. Under Matt’s leadership, Waseda Farms has expanded to include two locations — its 800-square-foot market in Baileys Harbor and Waseda Farms Market in De Pere, an organic-focused grocery store and deli.

This year, people will partake of Waseda’s beef, pork and chicken in more than 45 restaurants in Door County, Green Bay and Sheboygan. Commercial sales grew 91 percent in 2016, with a six-year average growth of 156 percent.

“Once we got over the $1 million in sales mark, we were on the right track,” Matt says.

Wisconsin is well positioned to tap into the growing market for organic dairy, livestock, produce and other foods, according to a 2015 report by the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, a research center for sustainable agriculture run through the University of Wisconsin-Madison. With 1,180 organic farms, the USDA 2012 Census of Agriculture ranked Wisconsin second in the nation, representing 8 percent of organic farms in the United States, according to the report. The state ranks first in the nation for organic beef and dairy farms.

The appetite for organics is also strong. Wisconsin ranked fifth in the nation for organic sales in 2014, with consumers spending $201 million, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service survey.

Clearly, Waseda Farms is perfectly positioned, at the forefront of a booming trend.

“The shift is beginning, and I don’t think it’s going to change. I don’t envision that we’re going to say, ‘Hey, let’s start putting more chemicals in our animals and on our fields,’” Matt says of the trend.

‘Holy cows and papal bulls’

Stroll along the pastures at Waseda Farms in the rolling hills of the Door Peninsula, and you’ll find cattle grazing and plodding the wide-open spaces, calves frolicking alongside them. Pigs wallow in their ample digs, and chickens roam freely.

Tom’s nascent efforts began small. He had recently purchased a farm next to an organic farmer, bought his first cow and put it in with the neighbor’s herd. “One became six, six became 10, 10 became 20,” Matt says. “We kind of started to wear out our welcome, and it was time to get our own farm.”

Matt, 41, who holds bachelor of business administration and culinary arts degrees, estimates his family visited 20 farms looking for a place to set up an organic business. Perhaps it was divine intervention that led the Lutseys to the land that is now Waseda Farms.

Originally known as the O’Brien Farm, Phillip and Eleanor O’Brien donated it to the Priests of the Sacred Heart, a Jesuit order. The brothers worked the land as part of the St. Joseph’s retreat for more than 47 years. To this day, grottos and religious relics mark the property.

The space Matt likes to call the land of holy cows and papal bulls was ideal. Because the brothers had never used it for conventional farming, it was ready to be certified organic. If a conventional farmer has sprayed and fertilized the land, it takes three years to transition it to certified organic, forgoing chemicals, changing the seeds and planting with non-GMO seeds, Matt says.

“That’s usually one of the big challenges that a lot of farmers face getting them to transition,” says Matt, who has relied on the help of mentor farmers and much research to learn about agriculture. “We were lucky enough that it was basically ready to go.”

Safe and humane treatment

Innovation and good business sense are part of the Lutsey family DNA. Tom’s father, Thomas H. Lutsey, a farmer in Pulaski, devised the idea of selling ice cream while making milk deliveries. This led him to create “paddle pops,” ice cream on a stick dipped in chocolate and rolled in nuts.

In 1946, Thomas H. Lutsey established Gold Bond Ice Cream, which grew to include favorite ice cream novelties like the Eskimo Pie and spawned numerous patents and advances in the ice cream industry. Tom worked alongside his father for years, handling business operations, before selling Gold Bond to Good Humor-Breyers.

Turning to his new venture, Tom became interested in humane animal handling. The first time he conducted a cattle roundup, it became clear he needed to find a better way. The scene was chaotic, with dozens of people on horseback trying to get 50 calves down and ear tags secured.

A little research quickly led Tom to the work of Temple Grandin, a renowned professor of animal science at Colorado State University and the subject of a well-known 2010 HBO biopic chronicling her life as a woman with autism who pioneered techniques in humane livestock handling. Tom isn’t afraid to take initiative, Matt says.

“He’ll call the hotline or the main operator for the university and say, ‘Hey, I’m trying to get ahold of Temple. Transfer me.’”

When he did reach Grandin, she was a bit incredulous. Used to working with large operations, Tom says she wasn’t sure what to make of the request to build a system for the Lutseys’ 50 cattle.

“She didn’t use the word crazy, but she implied that I was,” Tom says. “She’s a very subtle person, and she was just like, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’”

It turns out he did. Matt says the system, which Grandin came to the farm and designed, has provided more benefits than he and his father could have anticipated. It creates a safer environment for the animals as well as the people who work with them. It makes easy work of tasks like vet checks and weaning calves from mothers.

Cows don’t like corners, Matt says, so the serpentine system guides them through in a way that’s comforting to them, and its solid walls show less movement, which can scare animals. The cows can move backward and forward in the system but can’t turn around. It allows one or a few to do the work of many, resulting in a huge cost saving, Matt says.

The calves become familiar with the system early on, walking through it with their mothers. When it comes time for the cattle to board the truck for their destination of “freezer camp,” Matt says the familiarity calms them, leading to less adrenaline and ultimately a higher-quality meat product.

Wickman House, an upscale Ellison Bay restaurant, has worked with the Lutseys for six years, and its menu features Waseda’s beef, pork and chicken. Mike Holmes, proprietor and general manager, says his customers demand local, organic and grass-fed products, and Waseda Farms is an ideal partner.

Holmes says he has no doubts the humane treatment makes a difference in the quality of the meat. “It’s one of the few operations that consistently puts that practice into place.”

A family affair

At the heart of Waseda’s 36-employee operation is family. Tom and Matt, the oldest of the Lutseys’ four sons, persuaded brother Jeff to join the company two years ago. An engineer by trade, Jeff now works as the farm administrator, managing the farm’s 80 different plots of land and animals, handling logistics and human resources, coordinating commercial sales and working with restaurants.

Like Matt, Jeff didn’t see himself working on a farm. “We’ve always been excited about it, but excited from afar — intentionally,” Jeff says with a laugh, describing his and his other two brothers’ reaction to the farm.

The actual working together presents its share of joys and challenges. Gathered in a one-room schoolhouse on the site of Waseda Farms, Tom, Matt and Jeff reflect on working with family.

“It’s a real amazing roller coaster, as it would be for all families to kind of work together so closely,” Jeff says, describing Matt as creative and visionary, like their father, whereas he’s detail-oriented and analytical.

Matt breaks into his brother’s reverie: “It’s a work in progress,” he says to big laughs. “Let’s not go and say this is a perfectly well-oiled machine. We’re family.”

Tom puts it elegantly. “Each day, somebody’s got a burr up his butt about something.”

“What’s important to Dad isn’t always important to me or important to Jeff or vice versa,” says Matt, who co-owns the farm with his father and other family members. “But if you step back, of course all the things are important … but we just have to work through it, keep checking boxes and getting stuff done.”

Good things in store

The De Pere market was borne of Matt’s realization that as Waseda Farms grew, it was missing “the other parts of the plate” — i.e. vegetables. All the store’s meat comes from the family farm, and Matt strives to offer local dairy and produce as much as possible, filling the gaps with certified organic products from geographically close when not.

The store, which includes a deli and grab-and-go items, serves as a platform for one of Matt’s passions: educating people about the benefits of organics. “There’s a stigma about the price,” he says, and that, combined with availability and convenience, sometimes holds people back.

At the same time, however, Matt sees an increasing interest in organic and locally grown food. “Not only in our store but other places, organic products are slowly getting a bigger section.”

Dr. Lynn Wagner, an integrative medicine specialist with BayCare Clinic, works with patients to take a more holistic or alternative approach to their health. She calls Waseda Farms a great resource for her and her patients, who she often directs to the store.

“If you’re trying to eat a clean diet, you can find everything you need there,” she says. “I think it’s important because it’s a hub that connects the consumers to the food producers.”

Each January, Waseda Farms Market holds its “you buy, we give” campaign, donating 25 cents to local food programs for every dollar spent on ground beef. This year, it donated more than $22,000. The Lutsey family also established the Thomas H. Lutsey-Waseda Farms scholarship in honor of Matt’s grandfather.

Tim Prestby, a freshman studying landscape architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, received one of the four-year $10,000 scholarships. “It really aligns with my goals because it’s a very local company,” he says. “It’s really a value I take to heart.”

As Matt looks toward the future, he takes a balanced approach, noting that it’s not easy to expand or radically increase production. He’d like to continue to increase Waseda’s footprint and anticipates growing operations to a certain level and then looking to partners.

“I’d love to say we’re going to just keep getting bigger and bigger, but I don’t think we will,” he says. “Finding those different people to work with is easier than just buying every piece of land that comes up and finding more labor.”