A young couple leaves the rat race behind to run a sustainable cattle ranch

North of Oracle on Highway 77, signs for Mammoth, Dudleyville and Winkelman blur by. Who lives here, and what do they do?

The worn-down houses and mobile homes scattered across the land resemble a board game that no one wanted to play. And there's not a convenience store in sight.

At marker 129, we exit the highway, and the paved road turns into a narrow strip of hilly dirt and gravel as we enter the Double Check Ranch, located in the transition zone between the Sonoran Desert, grassland and the gallery of cottonwoods, willows, tamarisks and mesquites of the lower San Pedro River.

Are we still in Arizona? It feels more like the intense greenness of Virginia.

Two generations of the Schwennesen family have been ranching at the Double Check, located 60 miles north of Tucson, since 1995. First came Eric and Jean, who moved from Willcox with a dream to raise grass-fed beef. That was well before the current movement to eat locally grown meats and produce; Jean had a vision and a background in healthy living, along with a belief that animals are not intended to eat grains. She hit the then-scant farmers' market circuit and developed a good customer base.

Traditionally, all beef cattle were grass-fed, but in today's U.S. economy, faster is better and more profitable. Some 75 years ago, steers were 4 or 5 years old at slaughter. Today, they are between 14 to 18 months old. A calf with a birth weight of 80 pounds can't grow to 1,200 pounds in a little more than a year simply on grass. Instead, many beef cows eat enormous quantities of corn, protein supplements, antibiotics and other drugs, including growth hormones.

In 2005, some ranches nearby sold a lot of land to a big developer for a new golf-course community. Eric and Jean feared a loss of water and moved a large part of the ranch to an area near the New Mexico border along the Mogollon Rim, east of Clifton.

That left the Double Check Ranch to the second generation. Paul Schwennesen and his wife, Sarah, both 29, are unlikely candidates as ranchers, or "stewards of the land," as they say. Growing up in an intellectually active family with a Willcox public-school education and no television, Paul got accepted at the Air Force Academy, where he studied maintenance and acquisitions. There, he met public affairs-savvy Sarah, from the Denver suburbs, who always dreamed of being a rural wife. Upon graduation, they accepted assignments in Boston with the intent of applying to Harvard. Paul now has a master's degree in government from Harvard, and Sarah is finishing her thesis for the same degree.

The obvious question: What's a beautiful couple like them doing in a place like this?

Paul laughs. "We're certainly anachronisms," says Sarah. "Usually, kids leave the farm, go to school and never look back. We, on the other hand, had a good time getting our fill of big-city life. Crunching numbers, we figured out how to make a living doing this. We don't want to be part of the pack driving to Phoenix at 5 a.m. in wall-to-wall traffic."

Paul agrees. "You would be surprised what you don't miss," he says. "I think we're the first of a larger wave of people coming back to small farming and ranching, who can produce wholesome food at a fair price for profit."

Part of their profit comes from doing more themselves. Hiring out only for tasks like fixing fences or cutting meat, the Schwennesens have eliminated the middleman.

"In 1950, roughly 40 cents of every dollar went back to producers. Today, it's less than 19 cents, which is why so few people are in agriculture anymore," says Paul. "By us doing the work of the middleman, we keep more of the money so we can stay in business."

On their weekend forays to the farmers' markets in Oro Valley, the town of Oracle and here in Tucson at St. Philip's Plaza, the Schwennesens encourage shoppers to taste grass-fed beef and become educated about the benefits of a healthier, hormone- and antibiotic-free product with less saturated fat. For now, customers can prepay for 5 or 10 percent of a cow in the style of community-supported agriculture. Starting in mid-July, limited supplies of meat should be available for sale at the farmers' markets; a state meat inspector is scheduled to come to the ranch and permit retail sales.

Double Check Ranch practices management-intensive grazing, where the cows move from one irrigated pasture to another; of 215 acres, about 40 are irrigated. Paul's holler gets the cows moving, and they come running, knowing that a delicious new pasture waits.

"Cattle are not bovine in mentality," says Paul. "They are keenly attuned and easier to train than dogs."

A former vegetarian, Sarah was hesitant about having a packing plant on the premises. I was trying to suppress imagery from the pages of Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser as I entered a sparkling slaughterhouse free of stench, odor or stains. Here, the cows are humanely killed, one or two per week as needed, then dry-aged for 10 days in a cold room. The time-consuming process of airing out the packing house naturally sterilizes the space. The meat is mostly hand cut and wrapped, and has been tested by the UA meat lab. Personalization and the small scale reduces the risk of contamination.

As for the pasture-to-palate concept, Sarah has made peace with what eventually happens to the cows, because they are treated with respect and dignity.

A walk around the ranch is spectacularly energizing; the rugged Galiuro Mountains jut out as a backdrop. Although the temperature is 103 degrees, it doesn't feel as hot as it does in Tucson, maybe because there's no blacktop to absorb the heat, and a perpetual breeze blows. Walking down to the shady tree-lined river's edge where the water is cool, it's almost like entering another climate zone. The ongoing supply of water naturally attracts birds and wildlife.

For now, their bucolic ranching life is on track for the young couple. They're living on their own terms.