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Farmer sees his investment in yaks paying dividends

By Sue Halena

St. Cloud Times

Take a drive southwest of St. Joseph and you'll see dairy farms, horses and ... yaks?

Those horned, hairy beasts of Tibet graze the pasture and munch hay just like well-mannered central Minnesota cattle. Someday, they might supply meat and cheese the way Herefords and Holsteins do, too.

That's John Hooper's vision. With a herd of 44 yaks, he's one of the 10 biggest producers in North America and the biggest in the eastern half of the United States. If his marketing efforts show a glimmer of success, he'll double the size of the herd.

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"People thought the yak would be a flash in the pan," he said. "It may be the exotic animal that outlasts others."

The yak ranch isn't Hooper's main source of income -- yet. He works several days a week as a cattle hoof trimmer. He also operates a Christmas tree farm.

Six years ago, Hooper didn't even know what a yak was. Half a year later, he got in on the ground floor of U.S. yak production when he bought one bull and five cows.

Hooper wanted to raise livestock that was exotic and marketable. He ruled out then-trendy emu, ostrich and llama operations because he saw limited usefulness. He avoided the big investment in buildings and fences that bison and elk require. And he was cautious.

"I was skeptical enough to start out with a smaller group and see how they worked," he said.

They worked well. The cows give birth to one calf a year -- and never with complications. They're satisfied with grass in summer, hay and a little corn in winter.

Within a year, Hooper has increased his livestock sales to other farmers and started selling yak meat to Twin Cities restaurants.

"It's all coming together at one time," he said.

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The restaurants he sells to -- Everest on Grand in St. Paul and Shangri-La in St. Louis Park -- specialize in Nepali and Tibetan cuisine. Hooper sees a broader audience for the meat that is dark red, low in cholesterol and a little like beef in flavor.

"I don't have a way to describe it," he said.

The chance of taking yak meat to supermarkets is slim. Growers don't have the quantities for mass marketing, and the premium prices are better suited to a special-occasion restaurant.

Getting the meat to market has required close work with regulators who really weren't sure what set of inspection rules should apply to yak meat.

Hooper also is on a producers committee researching regulations that determine how yak cheese can be marketed.

The cheese, he said, will be a find for elite food junkies who are tired of brie.

The steaks Hooper markets in the future might be derived from a cross of yak and beef cattle. The 16 black Angus and Austrian Pinzgaur heifers on his farm are expected to produce animals that grow faster and hit twice the weight of a purebred yak.

If crossbreeding perfects the meat, retail prices could go as high as $20 a pound for a high-quality steak, Hooper said. Yak burger retails for about $4.50 a pound.

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Crossbreeding already is popular in western states, where yak production is slightly more common. Hooper learns about growing and marketing trends through the International Yak Association, where he serves as vice president.

Hooper's yaks are more than an investment.

They entertain him in spring with playful, tails-up romps through the pasture. They challenge him with "bluff charges" -- swift runs that inspire fear, then end abruptly.

They travel with him to a July festival in Brooklyn Park where Tibetan immigrants celebrate the birthday of the Dalai Lama. Older Tibetans shed tears for the memories of exile the yaks evoke, and younger ones marvel at their first sight of animals so central to their heritage, Hooper said.

That day is "the thing I look forward to most every year," he said.

His days at home echo his growing-up years on a small farm near Pleasant Lake. There were cows, chickens, a pig, ducks -- and if his father would have had the chance, there probably would have been a yak.

"He had a real love for animals, especially the unusual," Hooper said. "I really wish my father would have been alive to see my herd."

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