Eagle County shops, companies offer free-range, Colorado-raised meat | VailDaily.com

Eagle County shops, companies offer free-range, Colorado-raised meat

Melanie Wong
mwong@vaildaily.com

When shoppers pick up a package of beef at the supermarket, they'll often gaze on a picture of a cow standing in an agrarian landscape, probably munching on some grass. That image can be misleading, says valley resident Chris Hudgens.

Hudgens, co-owner of the soon-to-be-opened Colorado Meat Co., hopes to offer shoppers a completely different kind of meat, a product that in fact won't ever come pre-packaged.

"People look at the packaging on the beef, and it's got green grass and a barn and they assume their animal is coming from a farm," he said. "But that's not always true."

An increasing number of people realize that as well and, like Hudgens, don't like where supermarket meat is coming from. Many are opting for local, organic meat products instead of industrially produced meat from feedlot animals. Until now, buying local meat in the Vail Valley has been a challenge, but people like Hudgens are now stepping forward to meet the demand.

"A lot of people I'll talk to will make a trip to Frisco to go to Whole Foods because there is no way to get sustainable meat here," he said.

Gaby Milhoan saw the same demand, so when she was approached by a fellow rancher Caryn Devoto-Dixon, who wanted to produce and distribute high-quality meat locally, she jumped at the chance. Devoto-Dixon has been selling meat and eggs locally for over a year, and now as part of Vail Meat Co., she hopes to grow the business to include some local restaurant partners and also local residents.

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The new Vail Meat Co. sells non-GMO, antibiotic-free, Eagle County-raised, mostly grass-fed beef. Right now, the products are available at the Avon, Edwards and Vail farmers markets.

"Healthy, sustainable meat is something I've always been passionate about," Milhoan said. "It's a little challenging in our county. There's a Carbondale farm that sells grass-fed beef, but for people who want to buy local, our community's ranches are geared more for commercial and wholesale. We want to make it more accessible for local people to buy local meat."

What's the beef?

So why does it matter where our meat comes from? For Milhoan, it's a matter of sustainability.

For commercially raised protein, sustainability can be lost in the process. Milhoan points out that when 2 percent of the population is producing all the meat for the entire country, efficiency will trump sustainability. However, for the people who want the highest quality and are willing to pay more for their tenderloin, there should be options available, she said.

The beef sold through Vail Meat Co. spends most of its life grazing on Forest Service land in Gypsum. The cows are grain finished, meaning that at the end-stages before slaughter, they're fed grain in order to reach optimal weight. Completely grass-fed beef is available too, but are often the most expensive and have a different taste, because they take six to eight months longer to reach optimal weight.

"If you have the luxury of being able to afford a better meat, (this meat) is a better option," Milhoan said of Vail Meat Co.'s products. "It's going to be a more expensive meat, but what sets ours apart is that they're growing in our backyard, free-ranging in surrounding mountains, and the process is sustainable from start to finish."

Vail Meat Co. also sells pork, lamb and eggs from a ranch within 100 miles of Eagle County.

Beyond organic

For Hudgens, alternatively sourced meat is a matter of health.

The meat he and partner Brittany Pearson will sell at the Colorado Meat Co. butcher shop in Avon will also be non-GMO, antibiotic free and free-ranging, products of a ranch in Meeker.

He said that even before he was in the meat business, he made it a priority to buy high-quality meat.

"It's more expensive, but I'll find ways to cut costs in other parts of my life so I can buy good quality food," he said. "I feel good eating better food, and I do think it is better for me. I always say, 'If it's easy, it's probably not right,' and I definitely think that applies when it comes to food."

Hudgens says the prices at Colorado Meat Company will be competitive with chain-supermarkets, something he plans to accomplish with a unique approach. He will purchase whole cows from a rancher in Meeker and use every part of it to make different cuts, hot dogs, sausage, ground beef and even baloney. He'll also offer pork and lamb from the same ranch. He does the butchering himself, and while the method means that he may have limited quantity of, say, filet mignon, he'll also be able to charge a lot less than shops and stores that buy bigger quantities of just a particular cut.

"I'm sourcing the entire animal, so I can get these prime cuts for a set price and can still sell it at a competitive price," he said. "I do think I'll be saying 'no' a lot for the more popular cuts, so people should order ahead of time if they know there's something they'll need."

Beyond that, Hudgens' meat isn't organic certified, since the USDA certification is costly and doesn't necessarily translate into top-quality meat, he said. Instead, he's cultivated relationships with Colorado farmers and ranchers who are ethical and sustainable in their methods, he said.

"In the USDA's mind, 'organic' meat can be raised indoors on concrete, as long as it gets organic feed and has no hormones," he said. "I like to say we're beyond organic — these cows are pastured and grass-fed, and any grain they are fed is GMO-free. They live in Colorado pastures. I've been out to see the ranch, and the grass is chest high."

And what if you don't care about organic, GMOs or antibiotics? Hudgens thinks there's something at his butcher shop for you, too.

"Even if you don't care about any of that, it's the sustainability of the whole thing. We're utilizing the entire animal," he said. "Plus, these animals led a happy, long life not standing in a feed lot, and I think that transfers into the flavor."

Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and at mwong@vaildaily.com. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.

Where to buy

Colorado Meat Company: This Avon butcher shop will open Aug. 1 across from City Market, selling beef, pork, lamb and eggs from a Meeker ranch. Find them on the web athttp://www.coloradomeatcompany.com.

Vail Meats: This new Eagle County company sells beef from a Gypsum ranch, as well as Colorado-raised pork, lamb and eggs. Find them at the Vail, Edwards and Avon farmers markets or at vailmeatco.com.

cut: This Edwards butcher shop and seafood market sells top-quality protein according to their “farm and fisherman to plate” philosophy. Find high-end meats ranging from beef to duck to quail here. See http://cutvail.com/.