CONWAY — Michael and Lauren Lee are taking the family’s farm into the 21st century. They are marketing their beef primarily through word of mouth, farmers markets and yes, even through social media. Steers, especially, are marketed in the family’s “farm-to-table” program.
The Lees, who have a Conway mailing address but actually live and farm off Saltillo Road in the county, are the 2018 Faulkner County Farm Family of the Year. They have two young daughters, Mary Elliott, 4, and Adelaide Grace, who will be 2 in August.
Michael, 33, is involved in the day-to-day operation of the Flying C Ranch, which includes leased row-crop land for hay, soybeans, wheat, rice and corn; a commercial cow/calf operation of 150 brood cows, 130 calves, 20 steers and six bulls; and a 30-acre pecan orchard in the Lollie Bottoms near Mayflower.
“Lauren is our marketer,” Michael said, smiling. “She promotes the farm through social media.”
Lauren, 31, manages the website for the Flying C Ranch, acts as a technical consultant and participates in social media. She said the farm has a new logo and is using some new marketing techniques, such as providing a gift with a purchase.
“We want to show that we have a good product and offer good service,” she said.
“I was surprised and honored to be named Faulkner County Farm Family of the Year,” Michael said. “My mother and stepfather, Leanna Lee Clark and Dr. Robert Clark, who is a retired physician, received the honor several years ago. I wasn’t really involved in the farming operation then, although I grew up on the farm. I became manager of the farm in 2012 and became very involved in it, as well as in the community. I want to invest time in the community and give back.
“We have a very diverse operation, but our bread and butter … is our farm-to-table operation … our cow/calf operation with emphasis on farm-to-table,” he said. “We take our cattle from the pasture to the customer’s plate.”
Michael said the Flying C Ranch is involved in several programs through the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service, including 300 Days Grazing, which has cut down on feeding hay to the cattle.
“This limited hay feeding has drastically reduced overall cost for feeding cattle,” Michael said. “We plant fall and winter forage, such as turnips, ryegrass and oats to provide year-round grazing for our herd.”
In 2017, the Flying C Ranch utilized the Natural Resource Conservation Service to install water tanks around the farm.
“This provides a clean water source for the cattle and utilizes natural wells,” Michael said.
Michael said the couple handle their animals “humanely and are transparent with our customers.”
“We invite them to come to the farm to see how our animals are raised,” he said. “Over the past few years, the Flying C Ranch has reduced herd size in an effort to raise a more efficient herd. Low-stress handling provides a better quality of product for the consumer.
“While we raised our own cattle to feed beef to our family, our mindset began to shift as we considered our desire to take the product directly to the consumer’s plate,” Michael said. “Our program began with selling cattle to feed lots to be finished for consumption. In 2014, we began to shift our program to a locally grown program. We began harvesting our animals at a local U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected processing plant and selling individual cuts at the local farmers markets. We began to offer bulk beef to the consumer.
“This program has excelled, and we now harvest more than 30 steers annually for farm-to-table,” he said. “This program includes providing beef to local restaurants whose menus highlight locally grown products.”
In the fall, Michael will turn his focus to the pecan harvest, as well as fall calving. He said the pecan orchard is groomed year-round, but the main harvest occurs from October to January. He opens the orchard to the public for picking on the halves, meaning the customer keeps half of what he or she picks for free, giving the other half to the grower. Once the trees are dormant and it is time for harvest, Michael works quickly to get the crop to market. No product is wasted — pecans are sold, pecan shells are used for mulch, and pecan wood is sold for smoking meats.
In the winter months, Michael closely monitors members of his spring herd as they prepare to calve. Spring also means the beginning of hay season.
“Farmers do not have a day off,” Michael said, smiling. “I stay busy, but I love it. I’ll be glad when the girls get a little older and can help us more.”
Michael grew up on the farm, which was started as a hobby by his stepfather in 1980. Michael said he developed a love for animals and large equipment.
“I have been farming since I was 15,” he said. “I’ve pretty much lived on the farm all my life. When I was a kid, I loved driving the big equipment. I wanted to be a dozer operator.
“I graduated from Vilonia High School in 2003 and went to college,” he said. “I thought I wanted to save the world. It wasn’t a waste, … but I returned to farming.”
Michael graduated from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway in 2008 with a Bachelor of Science degree in addiction studies and psychology. He continued to farm after graduation. In 2014, he graduated again, this time from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a graduate certificate in conflict mediation. Still, he continued to farm.
“I’ve been fortunate,” said Michael, who was born in Heber Springs and is also a son of Stan Lee of Heber Springs. “I’m blessed. I hope our girls can have the same memories.”
Michael has one biological brother, Chris Lee of Vilonia, and four stepsiblings — Dr. Robert “Buddy” Clark of Des Moines, Iowa, and Georgia Ross, Mike Clark and Dr. Danny Clark, all of Conway.
Lauren grew up in Heber Springs, the only child of Michael and Linda Moore of Heber Springs. Lauren’s dad had a small cattle operation when she was growing up. She is a fourth-generation farmer who reconnected with her farming roots when she met Michael. She and Michael have been married six years.
Lauren graduated from Heber Springs High School in 2005 and later from UCA with a Bachelor of Arts degree in mass communication with an emphasis in journalism. She also has a Master of Arts degree in applied commercial studies from UALR.
She is an account director at Merkle Inc., a marketing and advertising agency where she specializes in email marketing.
In addition to marketing the Flying C Ranch, Lauren is also involved seasonally on the farm, mostly in gardening and pecan harvesting. She also helps bottle-feed calves when needed. During the summer, she harvests vegetables from the garden and cans or freezes them for later use. She makes many beef recipes, including beef bone broth. She shares her recipes with customers through social media and at the farmers markets in both Conway and Vilonia.
The Lees participate in the Faulkner County Farm Bureau’s Ag in the Classroom program and the Farm Roundup program sponsored by the Faulkner County Cooperative Extension Service.
“I love showing kids things,” Michael said. “These kids are like sponges. … They just soak it up; then they can go home and tell their parents what they’ve learned.”
Lauren often serves as a judge for 4-H speaking contests.
Mary Elliott, who will be 5 in the fall, will be a member of the Hooves, Spurs and Furs 4-H Club. She is currently learning about Himalayan rabbits and plans to show them at the Faulkner County Fair.
“Agricultural endeavors are mostly a family affair,” Lauren said. “The girls go along with us as we do chores.”
The Lees are members of Friendship Baptist Church, where Michael helps with the nursery, and Lauren is a member of the handbell choir and praise team.
Michael is a member of the Faulkner County Farm Bureau, which he serves as a board member; the Faulkner County Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee, which he serves as chairman; the Faulkner County Cattlemen’s Association, which he serves as treasurer; the Faulkner County Farmers Co-op; the Faulkner County Farm Roundup Planning Committee; and the UCA Alumni Association. Additionally, he is a member of the Arkansas Young Farmers and Ranchers State Committee and the Arkansas Cattlemen’s Association and was a member of the Young Cattlemen’s Leadership Class of 2014. He is a member of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association as well.
Lauren is a member of the Faulkner County Farm Bureau; the Faulkner County Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee; the Faulkner County Farm Bureau Women’s Committee; the Faulkner County Cattlemen’s Association; the Faulkner County Farmers Co-op; the Faulkner County Farm Roundup Planning Committee; and UCA Young Alumni Association, which she serves as a board member. Additionally, she is a member of the Arkansas Young Farmers and Ranchers State Committee, the Arkansas Cattlemen’s Association and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.