Malaysian man grows roots, raises sheep and beats Stage 4 lymphoma right here in Minnesota.
How does a guy from Malaysia, who came to the United States to study engineering, end up raising Jacob sheep and elk on a farm near Alexandria, Minnesota? It wasn’t a direct path, nor was it without challenges, but Charles Francis is enjoying life and the open spaces farming allows. Francis grew up in a family with four boys and one girl outside of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He went to a technical school, got an engineering certificate and worked for the city of Kuala Lumpur for four years before deciding he wanted to learn more. “Remember,” he cautions, “This was in the days before the Internet, you just couldn’t go on line and get the information you needed.” He went to the U.S. Embassy, told them he wanted to study engineering and he was asked a series of questions. What did he want to learn? How big of school did he want to attend? What were his financing capabilities? What part of the country did he want to be in? The end result was that in August of 1984 he arrived in Grand Forks, North Dakota, to attend the University of North Dakota, (UND). “I came in as an adult student, I was 24,” said Francis. “My roommate in the dorm was a kid from Lisbon, North Dakota, who was 17.” “The first time it snowed all the foreign kids from warmer climates went nuts,” said Francis. “Then it got progressively worse, more snow, cold, ice. It was terrible.” But he stuck it out. “What really attracted me was the open space,” said Francis. “Malaysia is one fifth the size of North Dakota and has 25 million people. Kuala Lumpur has seven million people.” (North Dakota has fewer than 70,000 residents.) “As an adult student I was very focused so the weather was secondary,” he said. “What kept me here was the people. I hung out mostly with the Americans and Scandinavians.” He met Kim Esala, a Brandon area native, during his senior year. He was going to graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, she in civil engineering. They married. Both got jobs in the Twin Cities, he with McQuay, a firm that made air conditioning equipment and she with 3M. “Her job was 100 percent travel,” he said. “Those first years we only saw each other four days a month, she was always on site someplace supervising a new 3M plant or building expansion.” In 1995 McQuay was sold and Francis was offered a position in New York with the new firm supervising a plant. Instead he took a job with Trane, another air conditioning firm, in Lexington, Kentucky. He and Kim purchased a 30-acre horse farm 10-miles outside the city. “It was beautiful, rolling hills with the white fences,” he said. At first they rented out their fields for other people’s horses and then decided they wanted to raise something themselves. On trips back to Minnesota to visit Kim’s folks they were talked out of beef cattle by Kim’s father, Ken Esala, but a neighbor suggested they research elk. After several years of study they fixed up the Kentucky farm to raise elk and bought some animals. “We were one of the early pioneers in Kentucky with elk,” he said. “We created quite a stir with the horse farmers with our 8-foot high game fences!” Kim left 3M about the same time, the traveling was getting old. Charles still worked and enjoyed it, he had a good group of engineers to work with. By this time he was heavily involved in acoustical engineering and he and his group would develop ways to keep the sound down on air conditioning installations. “My boss was an acoustics engineer and I was his understudy,” said Francis. “I think I was being groomed to take over when he retired.” But then his work situation started to change again. Trane got a new CEO with a mandate to boost the firm’s share price. Budgets got tighter, hiring freezes were put in place and engineers started to leave. Further, Chinese engineers were starting to be trained in Trane’s factory causing many to wonder if manufacturing was going to be shipped overseas. Finally, when Trane stock doubled and Francis was offered a raise less than the cost of living and the CEO got a $50 million bonus he decided it was time to do something else. “It was time to do some real farming,” he said. “We came up here, bought some land near Kim’s parents, and moved the 45 elk up here in three trailers,” he said with a grin. “It looked like a circus coming to town.” The person who purchased the Lexington horse farm didn’t want the game fencing, he planned to raise horses, so Francis had to remove all the old fencing and posts. He loaded it on a semi and brought it up to the farm where it was used. He credits Kim’s parents, Charles and Jean Esala, with being regular helpers and advice givers to the farming project. Why elk? Francis says there is a good market for elk meat. He sells his to Arrowwood, to a St. Cloud Coop and three Twin Cities markets and via the weekly farmer’s market in Alexandria. (He only sells on Saturdays, he needs to tend to the farm the rest of the week.) He also has a website, MNelk.com. A second market is for the velvet antlers. After elk shed their antlers in the spring they begin growing new antlers. There is a time before the antlers get hard they can be harvested and sold for over $100 a pound. The Chinese, Koreans and Russians use them for medicines. A third market is the “shooter” market. Bulls can be sold to hunting ranches. Their value in such a transaction comes from the size and symmetry of the antler rack which is called “typical.” “These animals aren’t just put in a pen and shot,” said Francis. “They are turned loose on large hunting ranches. In the fall they are pretty aggressive, they are not easy to find.” A really nice bull with a nice rack of antlers can start at $5,000. And the sheep? When Francis first started looking for a loan to buy his first elk herd in Kentucky he talked with a banker about the project. The first question was what experience he had in raising livestock. Of course the answer from his standpoint was none. They started with Jacob sheep after some research because of the multiple uses. The meat was better then some sheep, there was a good market for the wool and they could keep and tan the hides, which are also sold. While the Francis farm is not organically certified, it follows organic practices. The Francises raise and grind their own feed, all grain is not GMO grain. Animals are not injected with antibiotics and hormones to stimulate growth. The bulls will grow to 800 to 1200 pounds while the cows are smaller, staying between 500 and 600 pounds. They call the farm Doraisamy Farm after his grandfather, who, Francis discovered, was a dairy farmer in India over a century ago. If the challenges of adapting to a new, cold climate wasn’t enough, Francis ended up with a serious cancer issue which now seems to be past him. At the end of 2008 he started finding lumps on his lymph nodes and was diagnosed early in 2009 with Stage 1 lymphoma. After discussing various chemotherapy and radiation options, none seemed good. After much research they decided to try other options but by April the cancer was getting worse. About the same time, Charles’ father died and he felt compelled to attend the funeral and support his mother, brothers and sisters. After the funeral he was hospitalized in Malaysia. “I was in misery,” he said. “They told me if I didn’t do something right away I would be dead in two weeks. You live in America, they said. They’ve got the best medical treatment in the world.” They loaded him up with diuretics, gave him three units of blood because the lymphoma was wiping out his red blood cells, and sent him on his way. He cut his trip short, came back to the United States and started chemotherapy the day after he returned. By this point his lymphoma was considered Stage 4. He had 18 chemo cycles that lasted three weeks each over a year but was not getting better. “The cancer wasn’t going away, it kept flaring up,” he said. A new and much stronger chemo regimine was put in place and that sent the cancer into remission. After that he was advised to have a bone marrow transplant, which he did in June of 2010, using a brother from Malaysia as the donor; he was the best match of his siblings. He and Kim spent that summer at Hope Lodge near the University of Minnesota campus and then returned to the farm in September. In the next year he had what he calls “a hiccup or two,” the worst of which was a collapsed lung caused by fluid from his lymph nodes collecting near his lung, probably a result of the chemotherapy. Surgery seemed to correct that and his lung function has returned. By October of last year he was cleared to travel and traveled to Kuala Lumpur to spend Christmas with his family. “We were all together for the first time in many years,” he said. So this winter is Francis’ first “normal” winter in nearly three years. As he looks out over the pens holding his elk and sheep from the window of his home where the wood stove keeps things a comfortable 75 degrees, he’s happy to see the wide open spaces he now calls home.