North Dakota Grows: Black Leg Ranch Meats

In 1882, George Doan packed up his life in Canada and set off to the Dakota Territory to establish his future.  Six generations later, his homestead – and family – has evolved into the historic Black Leg Ranch: 17,000 acres of rolling prairie, abandoned farmsteads, post offices, wagon trails, and railroads, and an active multi-product ranch run by the Doans.  Every part of Black Leg Ranch, located in Sterling, North Dakota, connects the community to the rural North Dakota experience, from the Black Leg Ranch Meats to the Copper Jewell Event Barn to the Black Leg Brewery to the Rolling Plains Adventure outfitting operation.

The wonderful Kassy has kindly offered her thoughts on what it means to preserve the family legacy while also building new foundations for the future:

Doan Family & Business

You and your husband, Jayce, met in Montana.  What brought you back to North Dakota?  What keeps you in North Dakota?

We are, in part, running the ranch in North Dakota, along with my husband’s siblings and parents. I am originally from Montana, and my husband and I met in college rodeoing at Montana State. As soon as my husband graduated, he went back home to the ranch. I came to North Dakota to visit and immediately fell in love with it and the life we could have there.

What keeps us here now is the legacy. My husband is very proud of the fact that the ranch has been in his family since 1882 and we want to continue that and, hopefully, inspire our kids and grandkids to want to live and work on the ranch, as well.

Which family traditions have you kept going?  What new traditions have you created?

Each sibling has their own niche on the ranch. My husband’s passion has always been within the actual ranching part – raising animals, growing forages, etc. The traditions he’s kept going are that we are still a working cattle ranch, raising our own Angus cattle whose genetics go back to when Jayce’s great-grandfather brought the first Angus cattle to this area in the 1930s. We still grow our own hay, still hold a big annual calf branding, and still pregnancy-test all of our own cattle ourselves. We almost have too many traditions to list, as Jayce is a very traditional person and is very proud of his heritage and what the generations before us did.

As far as new traditions, we’ve added an internship program to the ranch, where we bring college-aged students here for the summer to gain valuable experience and live among us for a few months. 

Doan Family & BusinessBlack Leg Ranch actually has a number of businesses associated with ranching – the brewery, event hosting, outfitting, and the ranch itself.  What’s been the greatest challenge of managing it all?  What’s been the greatest opportunity?

It works pretty well in that each sibling manages their own part. Ours are the animals and the meats. The greatest challenge is that everyone is super busy and it’s hard to get the other siblings to help with the other ventures. However, the greatest opportunity in that is that we can all feed off of each other. Hunting clients love drinking our beer, people who visit the ranch for events like having a meal or snacks with our own sourced meats, our on-site brewery attracts people to have events, etc. There are endless opportunities.

What are some of your favorite products to sell?

I really enjoy selling any of our beef or bison products. I’m so proud of the fact that every animal we select for processing, and sell under the Black Leg Ranch Meats label, was born and raised on our ranch. We know when it was born, everything that animal was fed for its entire life, everything about it. We love telling the story to consumers and love being able to connect with them and bridge the gap between them and their food. So many consumers are concerned about where their food comes from.

What’s your favorite part of the day-to-day of Black Leg Ranch? 

We love the solitude and peace of being here, going out on the prairie and just watching the animals in their natural environment. It’s all very rewarding. 

Doan Family & BusinessWhat are you most proud of related to Black Leg Ranch?

The legacy. It’s getting more and more uncommon to find six-generation ranches. We’re very fortunate to be a part of one and can hopefully continue that lineage. 

What do you see coming up next for Black Leg Ranch?

The sky is the limit. Everyone has very creative ideas and you never know what might show up next on the ranch. 

You recently won an environmental stewardship award.  What is your advice for other ranchers and farmers looking to improve their own sustainability?

Jayce’s dad, Jerry, has been very instrumental in improving the land on the ranch. He has implemented many innovative and helpful ideas that have regenerated the land. Our advice to anyone looking to improve is to try and learn some things about improving their operation and just start slow and see if you see any difference. If you dive in head-first it may be overwhelming, so just pick a small piece of what you would like to see and take a stab at it. 

What’s your favorite piece of advice – either related to business or life in general?

I’m not sure we have a favorite piece of advice but if we’ve learned anything it would be to spend time doing what you love.

[From Amanda: You can read all about Black Leg Ranch’s ranching practices by clicking here, and purchase a wide variety of beef and bison products by clicking here.]

North Dakota Grows: Karen and Karen’s Kuchens

If you live in North Dakota, chances are you’ve fought the desire to not eat a panful of kuchen in one sitting.  Somewhere between a cake-y pie and a custard, this dessert came to North Dakota via Germans from Russia – and if you ask me, tastes the best when it’s made by a German grandma.

Fortunately, we have plenty of those in North Dakota – such as Karen Schwandt, who is the namesake, brains, and heart behind the famous Karen’s Kuchens.  The fantastic Karen has kindly offered up her thoughts on how she is baked up modern-day success by honoring her Old World heritage:

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Why kuchen?

Kuchen is a lost art and I have customers that have tried to bake their own with no luck. My husband says it is the feel with the dough. My kuchen recipe was handed down by my Mom who said, in a hushed tone, that it was her first mother’s recipe. Her first mother died when she was a young girl, but my Mom was the baker back then. It is from the Black Sea area of Russia (Germans from Russia) and I know there are bar kuchens out there (they are from the Volga area of Russia).

Karen’s Kuchens is now a North Dakota household name; how did you get started?

I thought about baking kuchen back in the 1980’s but it was just a thought. I talked to my Mom about this and she said that would be a lot of work!  (And she was right.)

It took me 20 years to feel it was the right time to try baking and selling kuchen. I thought I would do a trial run over at the C-Store near Akra at a local Farmers Market in 2005. I put some kuchens in coolers and sold out of the back of my van. I also did few other area Farmers Markets. I went to a vendor Christmas show at the local school and was asked by another vendor if I was licensed, so I contacted the State Health Department to find out what I needed to do to get licensed.

We had the right kind of home up in Cavalier to make a small bedroom into a kuchen kitchen. I started with one stove, refrigerator, and freezer. We installed a long counter, a dishwasher, a hand sink, and some cupboards. I painted the walls with a washable paint. We also took out the doors to a closet and installed the required triple sink. We put down flooring that was washable. I had one rolling pin and a hot plate to wrap.

After the inspector came, I was good to go. I started going to Farmers Market in Grand Forks, and some small shows in the area.  I started to think ahead of joining the Pride of Dakota and how would I handle a large show. So since there was a bedroom next to the one I was using, I turned that into a second kitchen. I put the refrigerator and freezer in that room and added one more of each, along with more counter and cupboards and microwaves. I put in a second stove in the first kitchen. I also invested in a heated shrink wrapper.

My third year up in Cavalier I decided to add a warehouse as I needed more freezer space. We built it next to our double garage. It held my little van and some coolers to ship. I also got a website up and running with help from a local person. Soon after we purchased national barcodes for stores. One of our sons took pictures of the kuchen so I could create labels for each flavor.

Later on, my retired husband took a job in Grand Forks, so we found a home near Larimore. We fixed up the entire basement and in 2015 I moved my business there.  My husband and son-in-law came up with the idea to build a dumb waiter for supplies to go down and kuchen to go up.

I have invested in various vans and finally found a cargo that works for me. It holds two freezers and lots of coolers. I have had growth at the Pride of Dakota shows, so it was a necessity.

It was a dream to be in a store in the freezer department, but now, after trying many stores, I have changed my thinking in that wholesaling is not my area of interest anymore. I am in larger stores of my choice. I am glad I gave it my all and tried different stores. I am FDA licensed and ship kuchen all over the continental United States. People order off the website, by phone, or by texting.

I have been in Cash Wise, Fargo, Leevers (Devils Lake), and the Hugo’s stores in Grand Forks for about ten years now. When I tried to get into Hugo’s, I wrote three letters and never heard back from them. So one fine day, when I felt brave I marched myself into Hugo’s and asked to speak to the person who puts new products in the store. I was told he was out and didn’t know when he would be back. I said I would wait, and three minutes later he walked in. I started talking about kuchen nonstop right out there on the floor. He said okay, they would try them, and if they didn’t do well he would pull them out. I said okay, with a smile. I have had the same spot in the frozen section at Hugo’s all these years. I was invited into the Hugo’s at Jamestown about three years ago.

Where do you get your flavor inspirations?

Creating flavors has been a lot of fun. Some ideas came out of nowhere, some from my husband, kids, and grandkids. I can make any kind of kuchen by request. I started out with the Apple, Blueberry, Peach, etc. I take pride in my Almond Creme flavor as I am the only baker with that flavor and many others. My husband is a taste tester, as are our kids and grandkids – we call it Research and Development.

A salesman that went to the C-Store asked if I could make Sour Cream Raisin as that was his father’s specialty at his Mobridge Bakery, which no longer was around. I made him this flavor and he said it was perfect. It is still a regular.

Our two youngest grandsons asked me to make Cotton Candy Kuchen and being the Grandma I am, I created this flavor for them.

Your website says you are powered by “Grandma Steam.”  What is it?

Grandma Steam is probably my German stubbornness and determination to get something done on time. I usually bake a large store order within a week of receiving it and I make a schedule for myself for shows, especially the Pride of Dakota shows (I do at least 3 of them). Family help at shows includes my children, sister, cousins, and a variety of grandchildren.

What is your connection to North Dakota?  What does North Dakota Quality mean to you?

I grew up in Ashley, ND German country, but I was born in Mobridge, SD and lived in that area for the first two years of my life. The North Dakota winters can get long, but I would never want to leave the state. Family and heritage keep me here.

North Dakota quality means using the best products locally for my kuchens. And I like to use fresh frozen fruit. I like Dakota Maid Flour out of Grand Forks (North Dakota Mill). My kuchen is all made from scratch.

North Dakota products are made with love, pride and passion by North Dakota people who love doing what they are doing, so the products are well-made and the food is awesome.

What are you most proud of related to Karen’s Kuchens?

I am most proud of the magazines I have been in. First it was the AAA Travel Mag, then Cowboys and Indians based out of Dallas, Texas and last year it was the shop. dine. live. magazine out of Bismarck. My kuchen was also voted the Best in the State in 2018. USA Today had the nationwide contest and I am proud to be #1.

What’s next for Karen’s Kuchens?

Each year is different so it is hard to say what will come up for Karen’s Kuchens. It is in my heartstrings and I worked hard to get where I am. It is my passion and I hope to continue as long as I can.

Baking kuchens has been an interesting journey. I started out baking for something to do and to honor my heritage. My Grandmother was known in McIntosh County for her baking. Her angel food cakes were so loved – and we know that must take a lot whipping with the beaters and nothing was electrical back then.

I kept pushing myself as I like a good challenge. I like creating kuchen that no one else bakes. I like that I have different sizes, so people can choose either extra large, pie pan size, mini, or samplers that make a gift box of eight little kuchens. I also bake three flavors of wedding kuchens with a thin crust. I created the recipe combining two different recipes to make my own. I love it when people say I am the best and feedback is taken to heart.

[From Amanda: You can purchase any of Karen’s Kuchens 46 flavors – including chocolate mint, honeyberry, and plum – on her website here.  They come in a wide variety of sizes and are deliciously affordable.  Or, if you can’t wait, you can purchase them in-person at the grocery store.  As Karen says, Germans say “I love you” with food.]

North Dakota Grows: Lisa, Greg, and 4e Winery

We’ve got our ion 4e Winery – a husband-and-wife team who have combined a love of chemistry and North Dakota to create an experience of white, red, and non-grape wines “born of the prairie.”

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After home-brewing wine for nearly two decades, Lisa and Greg Cook officially opened their 12-acre Fargo/Casselton-based farmstead and vineyards to the public in 2015, and have been serving up home-grown and hand-filtered happiness ever since.

The wonderful Lisa has kindly offered up her thoughts on how she and her husband – Dr. Cook teaches Organic Chemistry at North Dakota State University – are in their element celebrating the flavors and people of North Dakota:

Tell us about 4e Winery.

We feel honored to be able to share our little piece of North Dakota heritage with our guests.  Nothing makes us happier than watching the stress fall away as someone sits on our deck with a glass of wine and a friend.

Our winery is located on a century-old farmstead just southeast of the Casselton exit of I-94.  Our tasting room is open from late April or May, depending on the weather through the end of October.  We have had visitors from many states, and even other countries.  We get lots of visitors for whom this is their first visit to North Dakota not to mention their first visit to a North Dakota winery.  The majority of our visitors are from the FM area.  We love welcoming new visitors, but our repeat visitors have a special place in our hearts.  We have made good friends with people we have met first at the winery.  We also love the fact that more and more local folks – we call them our rural Cass neighbors – are coming out on a Friday night to sit out on the deck and enjoy a glass of wine or some of our signature sangria.

We were originally going to be 4 Elements Winery – an attempt to combine Greg’s career teaching Chemistry and the 4 Greek elements of Earth, Fire, Water, and Air – but about a week before we opened our doors in July of 2015 we received a cease-and-desist order from a large wine conglomerate who owned the trademark for Elements when uses in conjunction with wine.  We dropped the Elements, kept the E, and it has been a great conversation starter for us – and it looks much better on a t-shirt!

Tell us about winemaking in North Dakota.  

Our wines are meant to represent the flavors of our region, whether that be the rhubarb you dipped in sugar as a kid, the wild plums you ate off the trees in the shelter belt, your grandma’s version of chokecherry wine, or, more recently, the hybrid grapes that we are now able to grow in the upper Midwest.  We don’t bring in grapes or juice from California, for instance, but source our fruit from as close to home as we can.  Almost all of our fruit comes from North Dakota, and the grapes that we don’t grow ourselves currently come from within 150 miles of the winery.

The typical vinifera grape – such as the Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay grape – cannot survive the brutal cold of our winters here in the upper Midwest.  Grapes that will survive – such as wild grapes or table grapes developed for our climate – may not be ideal for making wine.  Fortunately, cold climate, or hybrid, grapes have become available, spurring the growth of the wine industry in North Dakota.  Research done at the University of Minnesota, and more recently at North Dakota State University, as well as some private breeders, has brought us grapes that will both withstand our winters AND produce amazing wines.  Some of the first varieties were Frontenac, Marquette, and La Crescent, while more recent varieties are Petite and Crimson Pearl and Itasca.

Our biggest grape challenge currently is sourcing grapes that are grown in North Dakota.  While there are some established vineyards in North Dakota, most of their grapes are not being sold commercially.  More vines are being planted every year, but it takes at a least four years for the vines to even start producing enough fruit to make the amount of wine we need to make so it is going to take quite a few years before we can source the majority of our grapes from North Dakota.  That being said, the grapes in our wine are grown within 150 miles of the winery.  They just happen to from the other side of the river, in Minnesota.  The grapes we source in Minnesota are actually more similar in terroir to the Red River Valley than grapes that are grown in western North Dakota.

How does Greg’s chemistry background benefit your process?  

We like to say making wine is both an art and a science.  Greg’s chemistry background is helpful for the science part but it’s his little bit of wine wizardry that makes our wines come alive.

And, as a married couple – what is your secret recipe for working together?

Stay as far away from each other as possible?  Just kidding.  Although it can sometimes be a challenge, both living and working together, coming together to create our dream makes it all worth it.  We both have our specialties.  Greg is the winemaker and I concentrate more on the tasting room and the marketing, but neither one of us could do what we do without the other.

What’s the best part of working for 4e Winery?  

The best part of working at the winery are the people.  We meet so many great folks – both neighbors and visitors to our state.   One thing of which we never tire is the magic of what we call the North Dakota three-degrees of separation. Almost every day we watch people run into their friends at the winery, or strike up a conversation with another guest who just happens to be from their hometown and discover that their sister was an old babysitter.  🙂

Tell us about your connection to North Dakota.  

We are both originally from Michigan, but my husband’s first job in academia brought us to Fargo in 1996.  When he got his first interview, he called me (this was way before texting was a thing) to ask if I wanted to live in Fargo.  I actually had to look it up on a map.  This was also the same year that the movie Fargo was released.  As we were moving from California, I got quite a bit of ribbing from friends about our move, but we’ve been here ever since, and we don’t regret it.  We moved here in July of 1996, just in time for the blizzards of ’96 and the floods of ’97, and the weather has only gotten better from there!

We like to say that a job brought us to North Dakota but the people keep us here.  We have also learned to find real beauty in the North Dakota landscapes.  You have to look a little harder, but it’s there.  There is nowhere else on earth that can beat our big skies!

Why is North Dakota quality important to you? 

We are passionate about promoting North Dakota products and North Dakota people, so much so that our tagline is “Drink Local – Drink North Dakota.”

What do you see coming up next for 4e Winery?

We are always excited to open the tasting room every spring, introducing new wines and bringing back the favorites.  We rolling out a new white wine blend this spring called “Prairie Breeze.”  We think it will become a new favorite.  We are also planning for our second annual “Maker’s Market @ 4e Winery” which will take place again in August.  This market features all kinds of makers of craft, food, and, of course, wine in the fun and relaxing atmosphere of the winery.  Last year’s market was so successful we decided we had to do it again this year.

[From Amanda: While you can purchase wines from 4e Winery all year round on their website here, they open their doors in late May/early April for tastings, events (they have a lovely event space above the tasting room that is perfect for bridal showers, birthday or anniversary parties, or even very small weddings), or for anyone who just wants to come and relax on the deck with a picnic and a glass of wine. 

They are also in the process of returning several of their acres to natural prairie to provide a habitat for birds and pollinators – an area which is available to guests looking for a beautiful place to stroll.  4e Winery will be open Friday – Sunday before Memorial Day, and Thursday – Sunday between Memorial and Labor Day – check out their Facebook page for exact hours.]