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The Good Life: Robert Frost’s great-grandson selling Sand Hills ranch

February 4, 2018 GMT

LINCOLN — When the great-grandson of famed poet Robert Frost decided to raise organic, grass-fed beef, he was told the ideal location would be Nebraska’s Sand Hills.

It’s an endless sea of grass, where you can sink a pipe into the sandy turf and gallons and gallons of water naturally gush forth — water that nourishes vast hay meadows as well as cattle.

“I said, ‘Where’s Nebraska?’ ” said Prescott Frost, a native of Connecticut and a former Beverly Hills stockbroker.

Now, nine years after swapping some Illinois farmland for a 7,400-acre ranch south of Newport, Nebraska, Frost is tossing in the towel and putting the spread up for sale.

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It’s not because there’s no market for his grass-fed beef. (It’s a tiny but rapidly growing niche of the beef market.)

No, Frost said, he’s getting out because none of his kids want to take up the hard work and uncertain prices of agriculture.

“I love the Sand Hills. It’s a magical place. But the next generation does not have the same craziness that I have,” Frost said of his three grown daughters.

The Frost Ranch, south of Newport, is 15 miles from the nearest highway, and an hour’s drive to the nearest McDonald’s and more than a two-hour jaunt to the closest Walmart. It’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer, Frost added, and for entertainment, well, you’re on your own there.

“We don’t live on the edge of the earth, but we can see it from there,” he said. “It’s a difficult environment. It can get lonely.”

So Frost, 59, is looking for a buyer. Sale price: $10.5 million, which includes an old dairy barn he converted to a fancy cabin on Pony Lake.

Like his famous great-grandfather who wrote about a “road less traveled,” Frost has followed an alternative path in his ventures in agriculture.

He first got into farming when his siblings inherited some farmland in central Illinois. They decided to “go organic” and grew corn, soybeans and other crops. But when they looked at raising grass-fed, Murray Grey cattle, a friend urged him to relocate to the Sand Hills.

A whole bunch of ranchers and farmers (even my late dad, who earned an ag degree) insist that corn-fed beef tastes better than grass-fed. After fattening up in feedlots on a diet of corn and grain, corn-fed cattle produce steaks with more marbling, the slivers of fat that make steaks tender and juicy.

But Frost (whose legal name is Prescott Frost Wilber but who uses Frost for branding purposes), maintains that raising cattle that way is just not good for the land, the cattle or the consumer. It takes too much water, too many chemicals and too many pharmaceuticals to grow corn and cows that way, he said, while grass-fed cattle need only the sun, the rain and the grass.

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“I’m kind of a crazy man on a mission,” Frost said. “To change agriculture.”

“I have a beef with the way we produce food in the United States,” Frost added, chuckling at the pun.

But selling grass-fed beef has its obstacles. It takes longer to fatten a cow for market on grass rather than corn, and slaughtering costs are typically higher. As a result, grass-fed beef costs about 70 percent more, according to a 2017 report by the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, which prices it out of the market for many consumers.

Still, that report concluded that “going back to grass” has a future in the U.S., if producers work together to reduce the cost of the grass-fed alternative.

Frost said it’s hard talking to his neighbors about his convictions. They’re used to raising calves that are sent off to feedlots, not grazed their entire life on green pastures. Still, he’s hoping to find a buyer willing to carry on the organic ways of the Frost Ranch.

“It’s frustrating to walk away from it,” Frost said. “This is the best place in the world to try and do what I’m trying to do.”

* * * * *

Husker coach Scott Frost has deep roots in farming, football

A more famous Frost, at least in Nebraska, also has agriculture in his blood.

Top Frost, the grandfather of Scott Frost (who was hired recently as Nebraska’s football coach, in case you hadn’t heard or seen the roadside signs across the state), was the longtime manager of a farm on the outskirts of Lincoln. The farm was owned by William H. Ferguson, the namesake of a handsome mansion by the State Capitol, who has been described as “the Warren Buffett of his day.”

Ferguson, who died in 1972, owned, at one time, more than 90 grain elevators, as well as Beatrice Foods, Yankee Hill Brick Yard, the amusement park at Capitol Beach, and a cable car and appliance business in Lincoln. He also owned 6,000 acres of farmland, including Woodlawn Dairy, which sat along U.S. Highway 34, northwest of where the Lincoln Airport is now located.

There’s still a tall brick silo that marks the now-abandoned farm, which, when it was a dairy, was managed by Scott Frost’s great-grandpa, Jake. His son, who went by the nickname Top, then took over management of the farm sometime after World War II.

That’s according to Sandra Hill-Schmidt, who used to work as a secretary for Ferguson & Co. in Lincoln. Hill-Schmidt, now a volunteer docent at the Ferguson House, said she used to talk to Top regularly, when he called in the weekly report from the farm.

Top, she said, always wore bib overalls. A real Cornhusker.

Top Frost was also an avid football fan, Hill-Schmidt said, who closely followed the gridiron exploits of his son, Larry (Scott Frost’s father), who starred at Malcolm High School, just a few miles from the Ferguson farm. Like a lot of Nebraska fans, Top had an opinion, she said.

“If Larry didn’t get to play or Larry didn’t get to play very much, Top was bummed out,” Hill-Schmidt said.

And don’t worry about football recruiting. It’s in Scott Frost’s blood. His grandfather, who led a mortar squad in WWII, filled the roster of his bowling team with only the best, according to a former neighbor, Larry England of Lincoln.

“He generally had all the good ones,” England said.