Taking the long way home

Imagine looking in your rearview mirror as you drive away from the hometown you’ve spent the first 18 years of your life in—headed to a new adventure in a college town. Hoping never to return.

Lettie McKinney of Johnson, Kansas, had that thought as she headed to college at Oklahoma State University several years ago.

“After (high school) graduation, I said ‘See you later, Kansas.’ I don’t ever want to come back here,” she said.

Despite that earlier sentiment, McKinney has made her way back to her hometown. She’s now operating an event space and wedding venue, The Roundtop; as well as an Airbnb—The Bin; MC-Meat Co.; and helping on the family farm and ranch.

But it wasn’t an easy trip back to far southwest Kansas.

Her path

McKinney majored in animal science at OSU, with the goal of being a veterinarian.

“My senior year, my heart started changing and I didn’t really think veterinarian school was where I needed to go anymore and I wasn’t entirely sure what the next steps were,” she said.

She graduated from OSU in three years because of her extra college credits earned in high school. A friend had told her about the ranch management program at Texas Christian University, and at the time she felt as though that was something that she needed to learn—the business side of the ranch.

“I remember interviewing with my professor when I went and he told me that the program was going to change my life, my grandkids lives and my great grandkids,” she said. “I was like no way. It’s not going to happen. But he was right.”

The program at TCU changed McKinney’s course in life. While still in college, she started looking ahead, knowing her father’s time was limited on the ranch and she wanted to spend time learning his job and how she fit into the operation. Brad McKinney has been dealing with a non-cancerous brain tumor since 2010, she said, and he eventually had brain surgery when Lettie was still in high school.

“He went through surgery and then he completely had to relearn how to do everything. Relearn how to walk, relearn how to talk, all of those fun things,” she said. “I was pretty hurt, I guess, despite all of that. So that’s part of the reason why I did not want to come back to western Kansas, because I just thought our operation —that’s what caused all the badness that happened to my dad.”

But despite all the prospects following graduation, she felt as though she was being pulled in another direction.

“I felt like I was supposed to come back home for some reason, and I didn’t really know why,” she said.

In the summer of 2017, Brad had a second surgery for his brain tumor, this time it was cancerous. Lettie McKinney had taken a job, but told her employer she couldn’t start until after wheat harvest and planting was finished on the McKinney operation. She later took a job at a feedyard in Spearman, Texas, doing data analysis.

“I was hired on to analyze, close out and just look at the data and see where we could improve our margins on and improve animal health,” she said. “I was also kind of brought on to deal with the customers. So I dealt with a lot of customers, people who would send their cattle on feed and then our outside cattle that we had on wheat pasture.”

McKinney eventually made her way to another feedyard in Kansas as an office manager trainee. She eventually became the yard maintenance manager.

“I’m so thankful for that and that experience in general because the feedyard taught me a lot about what I do now,” she said. “Especially with selling directly to consumers and finishing our beef and that whole aspect. I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today without that experience.”

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By 2019, McKinney was getting to a point where she either needed to make a decision about moving home or else she’d be put into a position where she didn’t want to be.

“Because if something were to happen with my dad—I don’t really know how long I have left with him or anything like that,” she said. “I wanted to come home and be able to learn from him and gain his knowledge, and I didn’t want to have to be put in a position where I would regret it and never be able to learn.”

McKinney sees the value of her father’s experience in the operation, and how valuable it is with the succession of the operation.

“Just being able to duplicate people, not necessarily people because they’re irreplaceable, but making sure somebody knows how to do your job because you never know what tomorrow brings,” she said.


When she moved home in 2019, the operation wasn’t nearly big enough to sustain two families. It was at this point she really evaluated the operation and asked things like, “What are we already doing that I can capitalize on and bring in extra revenue?”

One of those things was the MC- Meat Co., which she started in 2018. The McKinney operation was already raising calves and finishing them, and had started selling beef directly to customers prior to her return.

After she moved home and bought a house, the idea for the event space came about. There was an old round top building on the property that wasn’t being used for anything. But McKinney had a vision.

“We turned it into a wedding venue and event venue—a place for people to have different things,” she said. “I basically looked at some things that we already had access to and we were already doing that I could bring in additional revenue without having to grow in acres or cow numbers.”

Next to the round top was a grain bin, and for a while it served as the bar area for weddings and different events. It allowed a separate serving space for the venue too. Now, McKinney even rents it out on Airbnb for a “glamping experience.”

She sees the need for spaces for overnight stays for guests. The local hotel could use some TLC and at one point she even rented out her own house on Airbnb.

“It was crazy. I was honestly out of my house all the time,” she said. “I was expecting to be busy, like maybe three to four nights a month, and then it would be booked out three weeks at a time.”

Obviously there was a need in her area. She’s found her busy season for the venue is typically April to October, while the grain bin is more sought during hunting season and winter months when people are in town during the holidays.

“It’s actually a really good offset for cash flow to the wedding venue,” she said.

She’s found it challenging to market the venue and the rentals due to the distance to any larger towns and cities, but she’s up for the challenge.

“It was a challenge as a whole at the beginning marketing and figuring out how to market because I went to school to learn how to grow cattle and run a business and plant corn, cotton, wheat and alfalfa and all this stuff,” she said. “I did not really go to school to learn how to be a marketing major but I am learning as I’ve grown in the business.”

Since she started the wedding venue in 2020, she’s seen bookings pick up. The first year she had one wedding and a community concert.

“My first year was really slow and I didn’t have heating and air conditioning yet just because I was trying to make it work,” McKinney said. “I was just being frugal.”

In 2021, she was busier and hosted several more weddings and many bridal showers and other gatherings.

“I was like, ‘Okay, people are starting to buy into it,’” McKinney said. “I’m pretty sure everyone thought I was crazy because it’s so different. It’s so unique and people are like it’s a round top. Who wants to have a wedding in a round top?”

But McKinney has had a few want what she’s created.

“The coolest part of that I think is you can either dress it up as much as you want, or you can be very minimalist and not have to dress it up a lot and it’s still very beautiful and elegant,” she said. “Rustic, modern kind of a trending thing right now.”

McKinney has learned from being a venue host that details matter, especially with the Airbnb.

“Different little things like that or a coffeemaker,” she said. “I have a barcode up in the bin that gives you all my ‘what to do’ while you’re here in southwest Kansas—things to go see that are special to this area.”

Those attractions are what locals might take for granted, according to McKinney, but somebody traveling through the area might want to sight see, and those details go a long way.

Rural vibes

Fewer people, more cattle and wide-open spaces might not appeal to everyone, but McKinney is happy to share her experiences on the operation that’s made her who she is. And the ever-fickle wedding industry has changing wants and needs and she sees brides moving away from elaborate venues to something simpler.

“People are finally moving away from those big, huge, elegant barns everywhere—Pinterest worthy,” she said. “I think people are wanting kind of something unique and something different. The round top, it’s different. Completely unique.”

They also want someone they can trust. She’s found by selling her beef directly to customers, that her buyers want someone they can trust.

“Just knowing my ideal customer has gone a long way for me, because I don’t want somebody to buy my beef and have a bad experience,” she said. “I can’t really be picky whenever I get an online order in, but I just want to make sure I am portraying our story well, so people know what we’re producing.”

It’s important to her to build the trust just like a health care professional.

“I want to go to a dentist who I trust,” she said. “The same thing I just tell my customers, I want you to trust me. I want you to know I’m not going to feed myself anything that I don’t trust or believe in.”

In the short time McKinney has been back home on the family operation she’s learned more than she expected or could even plan for.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned is just figuring out how to make it work with what I already have,” she said. “I don’t need the biggest and the best thing to make something work. I can make it work with what I have and I don’t have to go into debt or increase my costs or whatever it might be because that’s where we’re at.”

McKinney believes with rising input costs those in agriculture are going to have to continue to do more with less.

“So it might not be perfect. It might not be ideal,” she said. “You might have to work a lot harder than you normally would have.”

She’s learned from her dad’s experience about dealing with illness and mounting medical debt that it was important to be creative to keep the operation afloat.

“And within that, like all these cool things have birthed out of it,” she said. “I think there’s so much opportunity there. I just think we have to look at things through a different lens than what we used to.”

For more information about The Roundtop, The Bin, MC- Meat Co. or the MC- Farm and Ranch visit www.mc-ranch.com.

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].