by Layne Victoria Lynch • Photography by Andy Sams
When Bob McClaren, current owner and CEO of 44 Farms, reorganized and revived his family’s fertile estate in the late ’90s, he had no idea the lush ranch would go on to become lifeblood to both ranchers and restaurants in Texas. Today, 44 Farms is the largest Black Angus producer in Texas—supplier to fanfare haunts such as Franklin Barbecue, Salt & Time, Jack Allen’s Kitchen, Moonshine Patio Bar and Grill, Black Star Co-op and more than 60 other restaurants throughout the state. And even though the inspiration for the name of the ranch remains a mystery (McClaren suspects it may have originally been related to acreage or head of cattle), there’s nothing mysterious about the attention and popularity this business is enjoying.
Sprawled over acres of electric-green grass, tall shady trees, fresh water and fertile pastureland in Cameron, Texas, 44 Farms is home to crops of crisp corn and nourishing grain and most importantly, a wandering herd of shiny black purebred treasures.
Even though ranching is practically embedded in his DNA, McClaren would never have predicted he’d one day be tending to bulls and beef after building a successful career as a mergers and acquisitions lawyer and the president of business operations for the Houston Astros. Now, as the manager of the land his great-grandparents Sherwood and Josie McClaren acquired in 1909, he feels he’s come home. “I’d come in the summers as a kid to see my grandparents and fell in love with the farm. The whole idea of the Texas cowboy and ranching lifestyle seemed so romantic, but my dad always warned me how hard a farmer’s life is, and he was right,” McClaren says. “I’ve been blessed to have a great career in all of my endeavors. To be a part of professional baseball was a thrill, but I’m grateful that I came back to agriculture.”
Unlike mass producers of beef, 44 Farms sells a significant percentage of meat that’s graded USDA Prime—a grade of beef that comprises only 2 percent of the total beef market. “I did a lot of research into all the different breeds, but nothing surpassed the quality of Black Angus,” McClaren says. “We rely on a lot of different factors: pedigree, DNA, projected fitness and a number of data points to grade our meat, and we’re always aiming to produce the best possible.” Further adding to the beef’s esteem, 44 Farms’ cattle are raised solely on a forage-based diet—receiving no growth hormones or additives during their lifespan.
Up until two years ago, 44 Farms focused on raising, breeding and selling Black Angus cattle and its seed stock to ranchers, but as is the typical way with Texas beef, it’s hard to keep something that marvelous a secret for too long. Soon, 44 Steaks—provider of 44 Farms’ marbled, juicy Black Angus meat—was woven into the business model. Since that key expansion, a deluge of casual- and fine-dining establishments in Houston, Dallas, Austin and everywhere in between have been lining up to get their hands on beef ribs, flank steaks, New York strips, rib-eyes, sirloin, ground beef, beef franks and other succulent cuts. Each customer has their preferred cuts, and even McClaren has no hesitation picking a favorite among his proteins. “You’ll hear a lot of people say rib-eye, but my favorite of all is the New York strip. Truthfully though, I must say I’ve never met a Black Angus I didn’t like.”
When 44 Steaks was first launched, online sales were slow and steady, but a tipping point was achieved when two Houston chefs—including Randy Evans of the now-closed Haven—ventured out to Cameron to witness the majestic layout of the farm firsthand. “To their credit, they actually came out to see what they were buying,” says ranch overseer, and former turf manager for the Astros, Luke Jenkins. “I remember one of them saying, ‘If you’re going to be a cow, this is definitely heaven.’ I took a lot of pride in that confidence, and after they started talking about our meat, sales went up,” he says.
McClaren has the luxury of having his feet planted in both rural and urban territories. While the day-to-day operations of 44 Farms is carried out by six full-time ranch employees, McClaren and a handful of salespeople are charged with spreading the gospel of meat in places like Houston and Austin. “We’ve focused on encouraging restaurants to just give our products a taste test, but not necessarily do away with their other suppliers,” McClaren says. “There’s plenty of room for competition in the field, and there’s no way we could solely meet the demand of a place like Franklin Barbecue. Believe me, I’d love to sell him all of our briskets, but it’s just not possible with that sort of demand.”
As for what the future holds for 44 Farms and 44 Steaks, McClaren emphasizes that the focus is all about sourcing quality and consistent meat and very little to do with growing the business in strides. “We’ll continue to grow,” he says, “but I never want to see the day where we stub our toe and mess up on quality. That’s the day I know I’m not doing something right.”
For more information, visit 44farms.com