While visiting, you may feel disoriented by the offices of Clear Creek Farm, producers of gourmet Wagyu beef. They are set way, way back on a 400-acre property, off a meandering country road and past horse farm after horse farm in Ocala. Outside the building, you’ll eye shiny, oddly rectangular, black-and-red cattle, grazing on sweet Florida grasses.
Head to the spiffy second floor, though, and your vista will be Mediterranean-like, as the picture windows reveal the tidy rows of an olive tree grove. Step into the al fresco dining room, and you’ll be beside a manicured vegetable garden. The set-up invokes images of The Mamas and the Papas’ 1965 hit song California Dreamin’.
You’d expect a Florida cattle operation to be rustic, fly-ridden and, let’s face it, smelly, especially in the searing, steamy days of mid-July. But that’s not how Clear Creek Farm operates.
This relatively new, and growing, operation is a small, high-end niche producer of full-blooded Wagyu beef; of Wagyu embryos; and – there’s a logic here, so stick with us – olive oil products.
High-tech helps at Clear Creek Farm
This is a colorful tale of a new era in cattle-raising, filled with intrigues like surrogate cows; “Sunpass-like” cow-trackers; and, ultimately, rib-eye and filet mignon dinners at Orlando, Ocala and Miami fine-dining establishments.
The story begins with Bill and Kay Dennis – he, at the time, was an executive for an international university chain; she, a horse breeder. The couple bought a horse farm in Ocala in 1998, a good fit for Kay’s equine work, and moved there later.
A financial adviser suggested that the Dennises, who were approaching retirement age, set up a more profitable enterprise if they wanted to leave the ranch to their children.
After “due diligence” indicated a big profit potential, Bill Dennis says, they settled on Wagyu cattle in 2009 and started building a brood. Three years later, in Salado, Texas, a fellow cattleman, Bruce Ekstrom, approached Bill. “You know, we keep bidding each other up on the same cows,” Ekstrom said. “Let’s talk.”
The strangers were neighbors, as it turns out, living only two miles apart in Ocala. Nine years later, the Dennises and Ekstrom are at the heart of Clear Creek Farm. (Other partners handle the business end from Miami.)
Today, Clear Creek Farm has about 300 Wagyu cattle; 130 “recipient” cattle, which Dennis warmly calls “surrogate mommas,” since they incubate and give birth to Wagyu calves; and an olive oil business.
The Dennises invested generously in what they semi-jokingly call their “retirement business.” That’s how they created the Clear Creek Cattle Co. (later, the Clear Creek Olive Co.) so quickly – for an operation featuring a breed of cattle that takes three years to produce meat from a single cow.
Before long, Dennis hired Lucky Jurgens to help clear 100 acres of wooded land (and another 150 acres later); now, much of it is pasture. Jurgens runs the entire cattle operation.
Cattle’s origins are far away
Along the way, Dennis, his partners and Jurgens did an inordinate amount of research. Hopping on Dennis’ private plane, they flew to ranches around the country that raise the nation’s 4,500 registered full-blooded Wagyu cattle, which are direct descendants of cows from Japan.
Realizing that “Everyone has different ideas about how to raise Wagyu,” Dennis says, the team agreed to “learn and keep moving forward” as challenges arose. They called in experts of all types, including educators and graduate students from the University of Florida; veterinarians; embryologists; and one superstar: Dr. Temple Grandin, a renowned animal-science expert.
With her crucial insights, Clear Creek installed corrals meant to keep animal stress levels low. Instead of hard corners, for example, the area in which animals walk to the cattle-handling center has gentle curves.
Ekstrom explains, “Everything is rounded, sloping, so the cattle snake through smoothly and easily.” As a result, the animals walk calmly toward their veterinarian appointments instead of running.
And those vet visits – they’re high-tech. Each animal is secured in a chute, its head sticking out, with gates on both sides for easy veterinarian access. As each animal is positioned for examination or procedures, a scanner reads a bar code on an ear tag, and information displays on a large overhead monitor.
The vet will see the cow’s name, age and weight; how many babies it has had (if female); even how many embryos it produced during the last cycle. “We treat each cow as an individual. They’re very expensive and they’re very important to us,” Dennis says.
They are, after all, the source of not just beef “for the 1 percent,” as Bill Dennis says, but for making embryos; that accounts for 25 percent of Clear Creek’s business.
(Editor’s note: Read Part 2 of this story on Sept. 26.)
Rona Gindin is an Orlando-based freelancer specializing in restaurants and travel. She covers food, attractions and adventures for Zagat, Fodor’s, epicurious.com, and other national and local magazines and websites. Learn more at www.ronagindin.com.