An Interview with IO Ranch's Jeff Ruyle

Jeff Ruyle has a big laugh and a friendly, easy affect, but he's serious about raising food. Deeply committed to the quality of the meat from his ranch and the humane treatment of animals, he'll be glad to talk to anyone about what makes I O Ranch lamb special. A certain confidence comes from knowing you're doing the right thing by your animals, your land, and your customers, and Jeff has it in spades. One bite of a Dorper lamb chop or roast and you'll get it: this is food raised with care. If you ask, Jeff will throw in recipes and cooking tips for free. A visit to his tent at the market on a Saturday will charm you--keep coming back, and you'll have a friend for life.

Tell us a little about the journey that led you to IO Ranch.

From the age of 20 to 28, I was an artist blacksmith and had an architectural metal shop in Austin. From age 28 to 47, I built high-end custom homes in Austin. At age 38, I started farming and ranching our family ranch, near Evant, Texas, on weekends while running the building business during the week. My wife thought I was crazy but I told her that the extra income would pay for our kids' college. A couple of those years, I thought it was actually going to prevent our kids from going to college, but I stuck with it. Each year I was being drawn to the ranch a little bit more. Three years ago, I took a leave of absence from my building company to focus all my efforts on the ranch…….just in time for the worst year of drought in over 100 years. Ouch! However, I never went back. I’m now 50 so I guess I finally figured out what I wanted to do when I grow up! Actually, I always wanted to be a farmer and a rancher, I just finally jumped in with both feet.

Why raise food?

I love to raise animals. I love to plant and grow stuff. I love to cook. I love good food.

How did your previous life experience or influences prepare you to raise food for a living?

I have been raising beef, pork, and chickens for myself, my family, and friends, since I was 20 years old. Once I tasted the Dorper lamb meat, I instantly knew what my next calling was.

What does “sustainable” mean to you?

To me, it means having an operation that sustains itself, without having to bring in additional resources, like synthetic fertilizers, for example. A grass-fed livestock operation is a perfect way to do that. If crops are harvested from a field, a certain amount of nutrients are removed from the field and need to be replenished in that soil. Under a well-managed grazing operation, the animals provide all the fertilizer you’ll ever need.

What does a “day in the life” look like at IO Ranch?

I have different tasks on different days. This is probably one of the reasons it never gets old. A better question would be, “What does a “week in the life look like.” Mondays and Fridays are usually my busiest days. We’ll start with Friday.

Friday: Gather the big lambs form the lamb pasture and sort and weigh them to see which ones make “the varsity” that week. Haul the lambs from the ranch to our place in Dripping Springs and turn them out on grass for the weekend. Load the ice chests and prepare for the weekend markets.

Saturday: We are at the SFC Sunset Valley and the SFC Downtown Farmers' Markets.

Sunday: We are at the Lone Star Farmers' Market at Bee Cave.

Monday: Load lambs and haul to Johnson City for processing. Pick up meat from previous lambs and return to Dripping Springs to unload meat. Deliver to restaurants, run errands, and update accounting.

Tuesday through Friday: Return to ranch and do general ranch work, work on current projects, work sheep, etc. I have a full-time ranch hand, a shepherd, if you will, that looks after the sheep and lambs twice a day, everyday. That allows me to be gone several days a week selling meat.

What is special or different about the food you raise?

All grass-fed meats are not equal. Any grass-fed meat is healthier than grain-fed meet, and pastured meat falls somewhere in between, because those animals are supplemented with feed while on pasture. What moves grass-fed meat from a healthy food to a “super food,” is for the animals to be eating green grass or plants exclusively. Sixty percent of the fatty acids in a blade of green grass are omega 3’s. Green grass-fed meat is also much higher in beta carotene, conjugated linoleic acid, lutien, and good cholesterol, and lower in harmful omega 6’s, and bad cholesterol. Each day that you take an animal off green grass, the benefits diminish. We plant our farmland in winter oats and the sheep eat the green leaves of the plant from November to April. During the winter, when most grass fed animals are eating dry dormant grass and hay, ours are eating lush green winter pasture. Ours are never fed any grain, given any antibiotics or hormones, chemical de-wormers, or exposed to synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. There are other grass-fed meats as healthy as ours, but none healthier.

What would we be surprised to learn is part of your “job description”?

Manning the I O Ranch Lamb Facebook page. I try to post photos or videos from the ranch at least every other day, so that people can see what our lambs are eating, how they are raised, and exactly where their food is coming from. I feel the more transparency, the better……. for the consumer, and for me. As proud as I am about our product, I am even more proud about our process. I never get tired of telling people about it.

What do you find most rewarding about farming?

All the smiling faces that I see at the farmers markets each week. We have an incredibly loyal customer base. Many of them I know by name, know their children’s names, and some have become good friends. I’m very proud of that.

What do you find most challenging?

Depending on the weather (that’s got to be an oxymoron). You have to have contingency plans in place. You expect the best, but plan for the worst, and most years you land somewhere in the middle. If you are not an eternal optimist, you will never make it in farming and ranching.

What do you feel is the biggest obstacle faced today by folks who want to raise food sustainably for a living?

Land prices, especially in the grass-fed meat business. It takes a lot of land to grow 100% grass fed meat, and land is very expensive.

What is a farmer’s role in our society?

The three most basic needs of a human body are air, water, and food. That makes the role of the farmer fairly important.

Why should we shop at the farmers’ market?

Quality of product would be far and away the number one reason. Once you start buying your food at the farmers' markets, it’s very hard to go back to the grocery store. There simply is no comparison between a fruit or vegetable that was picked before it was ripe, shipped hundreds, if not thousands of miles, from other states or countries, to the taste of those that were responsibly grown, carefully picked ripe the day before, and travelled only a short distance to market. This means that you narrow your choices to what is local/in season but I prefer to look at it as celebrating what is in season. Access to healthy food would be a close second to shop at the farmers' market.

What is the best news in food you’ve heard recently?

The continuing refusal to accept GMOs in the mainstream food supply.

What do you wish more people knew about growing food?

That not all grass-fed meats are equal, and some are not even really grass-fed.

What inspires you?

Our loyal customers.

What is one thing everyone can do (or a few simple things) to create a better, stronger food system?

Try to base a major part of your diet around the “local/in season” concept. Also, get to know your farmer or rancher, and ask lots of questions. Learn what questions you should be asking.

What are you cooking this week?

Lamb burgers at least twice a week. Also, a current favorite is spinach salad with bacon lardons, pecans, and onions, with a warm dressing of bacon drippings, red wine vinegar, honey, sea salt, and of course black pepper.

What’s your favorite farm-raised recipe or dish?

This week it's Lamb Stroganoff, using neck slices.

Quick Picks

Favorite breakfast: The I O breakfast at the ranch when all the family meets there for holidays. Bacon, sausage, eggs, potatoes and onions, biscuits and gravy. Sometimes we also have re-fried beans, too. Around 10:30am, and usually for 15 to 30 people.

Favorite comfort food: Cheese enchiladas.

Favorite book about food: Gaining Ground, by Forest Pritchard.

Favorite cookbook: Just one? Probably Matt Martinez’s Mex-Tex. Also, really enjoying The Austin Food Bloggers Alliance Cook Book right now.

Favorite fall fruit/veggie: Sweet potatoes or butternut squash. Waiting on parsnips to show up.

Favorite food indulgence: A chocolate croissant from Baguette et Chocolat.