Carbondale cowboys find niche market for locally raised, natural beef
CARBONDALE, Colorado ” The Jacober brothers of Carbondale have a beef, of sorts, with the standard practices of the cattle business.
The thought of eating steak, roast and hamburger that comes from cows raised in feedlots, fattened on corn and regularly dosed with antibiotics is more than they can stomach. So they raise their own grass-fed, natural beef.
And they’ve learned that an increasing number of residents in the Roaring Fork Valley want the peace of mind of knowing where their beef comes from and how it was raised.
Despite their modern names and boutique beef business, the Jacobers are cowboys to the core. They grew up on a family ranch in southwestern Colorado, then migrated to Carbondale after a brief detour to St. Louis. After graduating from Montana State University, Tai, 30, and Rio, 33, worked for several years for the late Bob Perry at his legendary Mt. Sopris Hereford Ranch just south of Carbondale.
Rio said he was lucky enough to participate in probably the last cattle drive down Highway 82 in the mid-1990s. Cowboys on horseback rounded up cattle on grazing leases around Old Snowmass and drove them down to Carbondale. There were almost as many cowboys as cows, he said, because people realized it was an end of an era and wanted to participate.
For their natural beef business, the Jacobers rent pastures and grazing rights on the White River National Forest.
They rent land from Tom Bailey, who now owns the old Perry Ranch. The Jacobers buy yearlings from Carbondale rancher Bill Fales, Perry’s son-in-law. The steers feed exclusively on good old Rocky Mountain grass during spring, summer and fall, and hay grown in Carbondale in the winter.
“They will have only mom’s milk and grass,” Tai said.
If at any time their cows must be treated with antibiotics, the Jacobers will separate them out and not sell the meat through Crystal River Meats. Consumers are guaranteed their beef is grass fed, and free of anti-biotics and hormones.
Some of the cattle they raise as a family and in conjunction with other ranchers are handled in what’s now considered the traditional way ” sold to a large beef processor, fattened on the feedlot and taken to a slaughterhouse.
After the Jacobers look after them for a year or so, until they fatten to 700 pounds, the steers are taken to a small slaughter house in Fruita. That’s another way Crystal River Meats appeals to customers. The beef stays local from the time the calves are born until the steers are butchered. The product isn’t trucked in from thousand of miles away.
“People are wondering what they’re really eating,” said Tai Jacober.
He, his two brothers, Rio and Forest, and their dad Jock started Crystal River Meats about five years ago. Relying mostly on word of mouth, the business has grown to the point where they butcher about five cows per month and sell the meat to a handful of restaurants in the Carbondale area and directly to consumers.
“Next year I hope it’s as much as 300 [cows butchered],” Jacober said.
The Jacobers have a strong background in traditional agriculture and they defend many common practices. While they themselves prefer hormone-free, grass-fed beef, they also understand it is a niche market. Mass production has its place in the effort to feed a surging world population.
Anti-biotics are needed to treat sick cows, Tai said, and he doesn’t believe that presents a problem for consumers, as long as it is handled properly. “You use it sparingly when they’re sick,” he said, adding that 99 percent of bovine illnesses can be cured with one dose of medicine.
Cattle raised at feedlots are susceptible to diseases from being in tight quarters, so they receive regular doses of anti-biotics in their feed.
Hormones allow steers to put on more weight in a shorter time, thus allowing them to be raised with less energy.
“In our situation, there’s no reason to use it,” Tai said. They don’t need to pack an extra 20 pounds of flesh on their cows in six months. They take their time with grass feeding.
The Jacobers said going the natural route feels more rewarding and creates a sense of the right way of doing things. So how did these cowboys get tuned into the sustainable approach?
“It mostly comes from walking with my mom in the wilderness,” Tai said. He and Rio said she has a high environmental ethic that she practices all the time, not just when convenient. She passed that environmental ethic to her kids.
Rio said it was also helpful to get an education at an agricultural school, study all the latest practices and weigh what you learn with the sustainable approach that comes naturally to them.
“You use the best from each school of thought,” he said.
Crystal River Meats is at a crossroads. The Jacobers’ hearts are in the business and they are excited to nurture it, but they also face big challenges. Bailey needs the old Perry Ranch for his own purposes and cannot rent pasture to the Jacobers starting next year. They are talking to other ranchers about renting suitable ground.
There are also demands from other business ventures the family is involved in. They have Jacober Brothers Construction, which brings a green approach to residential and commercial construction.
They also need to walk the fine line between healthy expansion and growing faster than they can handle. They are convinced that once they start marketing their meat, rather than relying nearly exclusively on word of mouth, sales will soar.
They will soon turn their marketing focus onto 20-pound boxes of meat. Many people don’t have the freezer space, money or desire to purchase a quarter of half a beef. The 20-pound box with numerous prime cuts and hamburger is much more manageable. Crystal River Meats sells that package for $140, which Tai said compares favorably and possibly even slightly below what a consumer would pay for comparable cuts at the grocery store.
Those boxes are available at their construction business officer at 55 N. 4th Street, less than a block north of Main Street in Carbondale. They also provide a steady supply of hamburger to the Village Smithy, Pour House, Dos Gringos and Ella restaurants in Carbondale. The Pour House also plans to sell steaks.
In the case of Crystal River Meats, word of mouth really translates into taste. The Jacobers are confident that anyone who tries their burgers will be sold on its superior taste.
Village Smithy owner Charlie Chacos said customers have responded to Crystal River Meats at his restaurant since he started serving burgers from the company’s products last summer. “I think our sales of burgers increased 15 percent,” he said.
A lot of the popularity is purely from the good taste. But some people also are aware ” and appreciate ” that the meat was raised locally, Chacos said. As the owner, he wanted to support a local provider and do the environmentally-friendly thing. Chacos said Time magazine had an article about one year ago that said buying local might be better than buying organic because it reduces the carbon footprint when food isn’t trucked in as far.
Ideals aside, the Jacobers said their burgers taste better because of the way the beef is raised and butchered. At the huge processing plants, cows of different ages and levels of health get mixed. “They throw everything in,” said Tai. His company’s burger comes from a two-year-old prime steer.
More information about Crystal River Meats is available at (970) 319-1106 and (970) 963-9996.
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