Dropping out of high school to raise Tibetan yaks on a western Oregon farm may not be the easiest career path. But to 21-year-old Nick Hazelton, it was the clear way forward.
“Really the big motivating factor of me looking into yaks was I didn’t like school,” Hazelton said.
Growing up in his rural King Valley community in Benton County, Hazelton envisioned himself a businessman or lawyer someday. He liked arguing. Getting out of town seemed nice.
Attending years of stuffy undergrad and law school to do so? Not so much.
“How am I going to do it if I don’t like being inside like this all the time?” he thought.
Hazelton, 15 at the time, took stock of his interests. He liked basketball, video games and raising farm animals as part of his 4-H club.
Going pro in basketball didn’t seem plausible. Neither did making money playing video games. That left one option.
“I thought, this is what I want to be doing,” Hazelton said. “I might not make as much money as I would love, but I’m going to be able to work with these animals.”
Settled on a farming future, Hazelton — a self-described “hipster” in the agriculture world — began researching exotic farm animals. He wanted to raise something more challenging and unique than your usual cows and sheep.
“I really don’t like sheep,” he said. “I think that they’re just so dumb. There’s a joke that a lot of people make that sheep are dumber than chickens. They don’t know how to figure out things. … I liked cattle, but they’re also kind of dumb.”
Emu, bison, alpaca — he considered them all. But once he discovered yaks, there was no turning back.
“I just found yaks to be way more enticing, and I think it was just like the look of them — they have nice, really pretty coats.” Hazelton said.
“As I looked into them more, they were just much more versatile than any other animal I could find.”
He liked the idea of getting meat and fat-rich milk from the same animal. Yaks also produce a wool-like, breathable fiber.
Hazelton purchased a few yaks at a Bend auction four years ago. Since then, his herd has grown to 25. Hazelton owns 17 yaks himself, and his herd partner Tyler Boggs of Heart 2 Heart Farm owns eight.
Hazelton sells lean, sweet yak meat for up to twice the price of grass-fed beef at Corvallis farmer’s markets. He also sells yak fiber. Yak dairy products are still on the horizon, as Hazelton’s herd is not yet tame enough to milk.
“I’ve never been kicked, but I’ve come close,” Hazelton said.
At $12 per pound, Hazelton said his meat product is more of a luxury than a staple. Yak meat has no major health benefits over other red meats.
Hazelton only knows a handful of commercial yak farmers in Oregon. He thinks the practice is still a bit underground, but is confident his business will continue to grow and fit the niche demand for yak products.
His advice for prospective yak farmers?
“Get a hold of one of us that is farming yaks!”
Editor’s note: Nick Hazelton was 20 years old at the time of this audio conversation. The story text reflects that he has since celebrated his 21st birthday.