Riding the (organic) range | VailDaily.com

Riding the (organic) range

NWS Organic Beef 1 DT 10-20-11

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Scott Jones has found his dream job – even if it often means before-dawn to after-dark workdays.

Jones is the manager at the Colorado River Ranch, a bit more than 10 miles north of Dotsero. Several years ago, the people who ran Cordillera envisioned homes and a golf course on the property. Today, a couple of owners on, the ranch has been certified to raise and sell “organic” beef, certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s one of fewer than 15 such ranches in the state.

It’s easy to find “natural” beef for sale because there aren’t really any rules to hang that label on a product. “Organic” is much different. There’s a big book of rules issued by the feds, and all those rules have to be followed to the letter to earn and keep an organic certification.

Going through the paperwork – and hard, physical work – required for the certification is starting to pay off. The ranch just sent off its first few animals for processing, and the next batch will be headed off soon. Ranch owners hope the end market for the beef will be local restaurants, caterers and others who enjoy, and are willing to pay for, something that’s both healthy and delicious.

The ranch’s journey from golf-course-in-waiting to organic ranch has benefited from a few missteps along the way.

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Scott Schlosser, of Eagle Valley Realty, is the owners’ representative in the valley. A self-professed greenhorn, he’s enjoying the ranch’s transformation and willing to talk about how it came to become what it is now.

When the folks at Cordillera decided there wasn’t much of a market for a golf course well north of Dotsero, the nearly 1,000-acre ranch was sold to a Cordillera resident. Schlosser said that owner liked the idea of a ranch but didn’t really understand what it took to maintain such a large piece of property.

The land hadn’t seen any kind of spraying for a couple of years when the current owners closed on the place in 2008. When other plans didn’t pan out, the owners committed to running a working organic beef ranch. Since there hadn’t been any chemical use on the property for some time, the owners were well on their way to meeting the biggest of the requirements for certified-organic hay and pasture land.

But the ranch needed a manager, and the owners asked Schlosser for a recommendation.

“(Jones) was the first name I gave them,” Schlosser said.

Born and raised in the valley, Jones was probably on a horse before he could walk, since he’s the son of former Beaver Creek Stables owner Steve Jones. Jones raised his first 4-H steer when he was 9 or 10 years old and earned a championship at the Eagle County Fair.

Now in his early 30s, Jones has spent his life looking for an opportunity like this.

Get him started, and Jones will talk at length about the art and science of raising both feed and animals.

There’s about 60 cattle on the ranch now – mostly black angus, with a handful of red angus in the mix. Jones did his homework and found the cattle at an organic ranch in Montana. These animals were picked for their genetic tendency to produce well-marbled, great-tasting beef on nothing but pasture grass and alfalfa hay, all of which is grown on the ranch.

Most cattle, even those raised mostly on grass, are usually penned up and “finished” with a diet heavy in corn to get the fat content needed for marbled beef. These cattle don’t get any corn. That also means it takes longer to get the animals up to market-ready weight.

Even getting these cattle to market is a complicated process. There are only two meat-processing businesses in the state that have their own organic certification. The one Jones uses, in Alamosa, has to be booked two to three months in advance of hauling a truckload of cattle to their delicious demise.

Before that, though, the cattle lead lives most cattle would envy. Jones knows every one of the animals, and they’re herded around by people on horses, not guys on four-wheelers.

And these cattle are delicious by any standard.

Jones said beef raised only on grass can be a little gamey-tasting, and grass-fed beef has a reputation for being on the chewy side.

Not these critters.

Michele Pirozzi, who owns Wild Organics, a small catering company, marveled at the steaks she sampled on a recent visit, pronouncing them both wonderful to cook and wonderful to eat.

Pirozzi said she’s seeing her own interest in fresh, healthy food starting to take hold in the tastes of her clients, who are willing to pay for both ingredients and services. She believes in simple preparation, and the steaks she grilled on a recent visit got only a quick rub with some olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and a couple of quick grinds of black pepper.

After grilling up a handful of steaks, Pirozzi was ready to buy a box of beef for a weekend dinner for clients.

And Jones, Schlosser and the ranch’s owners believe they have the right product to put on the plates of discerning diners in the valley.

Schlosser said the ultimate goal is to have “Colorado River Ranch certified organic beef” show up on menus at some of the valley’s better restaurants. But they also hope to earn the business of private chefs such as Pirozzi.

This is a premium product, but the ranch is also near a resort where people are willing to pay for top-shelf food and drink.

When it comes to beef, though, Jones is convinced that it’s important to know who raises the cattle you eat and how those people care for the animals. He thinks the people who know him will be eager to buy the beef he raises.

Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or smiller@vaildaily.com.

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