Triple L Ranch: A Family Owned and Operated Cattle Farm in Franklin, TN
Right now on the Triple L Ranch, it’s calving season. Twice a year in the Spring and Fall, the Lee family awakes to a number of new additions peppering the pastoral landscape every morning. Around 150 calves are projected to be born in the next month or so, beginning another season on Nashville’s Certified Hereford cattle farm. What an appropriate time to talk about beginnings and the growth of a small cattle ranch. I chatted with Ann Lee, the matriarch of the family business, and learned how the ranch was born, its decades of history, and how the Lee family pulls together to maintain a healthy herd and a tradition of excellence.
The story begins in Memphis, TN, where Ann was born and raised. Her father worked as a businessman in the city, but also owned a cotton farm in Arkansas where his mother resided. It was trips to this farm to visit her grandmother where Ann first became familiar with farming life. At 18, she moved to Nashville to study statistics at Vanderbilt University where she met a mechanical engineering major named Wallace Lee. Two years later, Wallace graduated and the two were married. For a number of years, Wallace worked as an engineer, then joined the Navy and eventually graduated from Officer Candidate School in Newport, RI, while Ann stayed with her mother. The young couple would move around for 4 years and have 5 children together before settling down in Brentwood, TN. In 1964, they bought the farm in Franklin that would one day become Triple L Ranch.
Originally, the farm consisted of 465 acres with a small commercial herd, raised and bred to be sold at stockyards. Back then, the road they lived on was gravel, a phone call to Nashville was considered long distance, and highway 96 wasn’t even a twinkle in an eye. “We were very isolated, then, ” says Ann. A year later in 1965, the Lees sold the commercial cows and Wallace’s father Louis Leon Lee purchased the first registered Polled Hereford herd, with a dozen heifers and one bull. This marked the beginning of a long tradition of exceptional cattle breeding that the Lees would become known for.
Hereford is one of the two most common purebred beef breeds in the U.S. due to its docility, its superior marbling, and delicious flavor (Angus being the other). Polled Herefords are a hornless variant of the breed that was selected from a naturally occurring genetic mutation. Wallace loved the study of genetics, according to Ann, and read as much as he could on the subject. He began to selectively breed and develop highly desirable traits within his own herd, and as time passed, the Lees gained a reputation for breeding superior cows. They hosted auctions and sold their animals to other farmers– farmers who traveled from all over the country to purchase the particular genetics the Lee’s offered. Their last auction was held in 2008, when the Lee’s son, Stephen (who graduated from Auburn University with a degree in Animal Science) set a goal: to offer their cows as pasture-raised freezer beef instead of auctioning them to other farmers. The meat production began and the family started selling to local restaurants and at farmers’ markets. The citizens of Nashville finally had a place to find local meat produced within their community.
“I think it’s fun to go to the farmers’ markets, “Ann admits. “I have a whole group of people I know now and I know their kids and I can keep up with them. We’ve done well with the markets, and I like doing it.”
She goes on to explain how keeping close social ties to the community is important. “Now, we’re having conversations with people who are eating our beef, not buying our cows for their herd. It’s a different process. It’s more personal, ” she says. “We like to have satisfied customers. If anything goes wrong, we like to fix it. We want everyone to be happy with their purchase, and they usually are.”
Today, 4 out of the 5 Lee children live on the family farm (including 4 grandchildren) and everyone plays their part. Stephen uses his degree to select the best traits possible and keeps the cows healthy, says Ann. Abbey raises sheep on the farm and is beginning to sell her meat at the 12th S. market. Carol is in charge of the bookkeeping and deliveries. Her husband, Daniel, is the farm’s herdsman, and together they have a son earning a Veterinary Medicine degree from Auburn University. Bill is president of the family’s other business, the Lee Company, and Cynthia is the Director of Outdoor Education at the University School in Nashville. She often brings her students to the farm where they can play in the creek, identify insects, and have a fun time. The family recently established a blue-bird trail with 75 birdhouses that Stephen designed and the students assembled. “She may live in town, but Cynthia is a big part of the farm,” says Ann.
Since its beginning in 1964, Triple L Ranch has nearly doubled in size from the original 465 acres to 930, with 3 nearby farms they rent as supplemental pasture. The herd now consists of approximately 400 certified Hereford cows, each one registered with the American Hereford Association. They take a more hands-on and proactive approach to maintain healthy cattle, rather than the much maligned practices of commercial farms and feedlots. The Lee cows are rotated in the pasture often, they are never confined, never given growth hormones, and never treated with antibiotics unless necessary. “If one of our cows gets sick and we do have to treat them with antibiotics,” Ann says, “we take them out of the production completely.” They reach production weight naturally, grazing freely on grass and hay alone until the last 120 days of their lives when they are offered a custom blend of by-product free grains in the field.
The Lees believe this grass-fed/grain-finished approach gives their cows more marbling, makes them more tender, and more flavorful, as well. They are taken weekly to be slaughtered at a USDA certified facility in Paris, TN, which ensures the freshest meat possible. Their products include the ever-popular rib-eye, filet mignon, sirloin, and NY strip, as well as other cuts such as stew beef and roasts. “All the guys like a big, marbled, flavorful rib-eye, ” she laughs, but my favorite is the NY strip.” The Lees have recently added chicken production to their farm and sell whole chickens in addition to chicken feet used to make flavorful stock. Other unexpected products include beef cheeks, ox tails, and bone marrow. They also sell beef bones for people to buy for their pets.
This past Spring, the Lee family lost a very special member. Wallace, or “Pawpaw,” passed away. “He is missed every day, ” says Ann. “But the farm is going to continue. Especially with our grandson who is in vet school right now. We know the farm will go on.”
And it will. The restaurant orders are increasing. The satisfied customers are ever-returning. The grandchildren are off to college, planning their futures. Some will even return to carry the tradition into the future. There is even a 4th generation of great-grandchildren coming-up, and who knows what roles they will play someday. And there are 150 new calves expected to join the family within the next month, after all. Life continues on the Triple L Ranch, and all members join in and play their part.
For more information on meat selections, prices, or placing orders, visit their website at www.lllranch.com. Click here to get their recipe for Beer and Beef Stew. You can also catch them on Wednesdays at the East Nashville Farmers Market.
About the author: Rebecah Boynton has a BS in Horticulture from Auburn University. She is a writer, an advocate, and a volunteer at the East Nashville Farmers’ Market.