Can Triple M Bar's flock create a Colorado lamb comeback?
The bleating of sheep in the barn — cries of every timbre, pitch and volume — sounds like a clamorous outdoor market in the thick of the afternoon. Ewes and lambs alike call incessantly, straining to be heard. One young lamb, not even an hour old, mews softly in the yard. Mary Miller, one of the Ms behind Triple M Bar, gently picks up the lamb and takes her to the safety of the barn; the mother follows.
This is lambing season at the Triple M Bar in Manzanola, Colorado. God's country — though He hasn't favored it with much moisture recently: The ground here is parched and yellow. But if the sheep are affected, they don't show it; they trot placidly around the ranch, jostling for mouthfuls of alfalfa. This season alone, the nine rams and 230 ewes have produced about 425 lambs, which means heavy labor for these ranchers as well as for their animals.
Triple M has been relatively lucky, an oasis in this drought-stricken state. The small size of the flock — fewer than 800 head — has allowed the owners of the Triple M to expand where larger producers have had to give up their livelihoods altogether. "Eighty percent of the ranchers here have sold their herds, because they've got nothing to feed them," says David Miller, who owns the ranch with his wife, Mary. "That's the rural community's recession.... When the weather starts messing with things, people can disappear in a year."
Bonnie Brown, executive director of the Colorado Woolgrowers Association, says the state's 15,000 lamb producers saw a brief uptick in 2011, "but with the drought and the economy, that just knocked everybody back this year."
And the weather isn't the only thing that's fickle: So are consumer tastes. It wasn't long ago that a lamb roast was a common Sunday dinner in America. Millions of sheep once grazed Colorado's grasslands, and Denver was the sheep capitol of the West. But the market for lamb shrank as cultural and agricultural practices shifted. "There's been a slow decline since the 1940s and '50s," says Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board, an organization that represents close to 85,000 producers and has its headquarters in Denver. "Every time we've done consumer research, close to 40 percent of people have never even tried lamb. It's just something that's not on the radar."
Her organization is out to change that, to transform lamb — particularly Colorado lamb — from the stuff of extravagant celebrity-chef dinners to a favorite not just with farm-to-table chefs, but average American cooks.
The Triple M Bar, in operation since 1994, is at the forefront of this movement. "We call what we do 'lamb reintroduction,' because at one time, lamb was a main staple of the American diet," says David. "Everybody had a few sheep out there. But that fell out of favor."
Triple M Bar lamb has definitely found favor with cooks along the Front Range, however. When Elise Wiggins, executive chef at Panzano, needs lamb for Easter brunch, she calls the Millers. "I've sourced every other lamb that's around here, and Triple M is the best," Wiggins gushes. "People from Italy always say, 'Oh, Colorado lamb!' I'm like, 'How do you know about that?'"
And when Colorado governor John Hickenlooper made a bet with Maryland governor Martin O'Malley that the Broncos would defeat the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL playoffs, he sealed the deal with the promise of a dozen Colorado lamb chops. After Denver's loss, Hickenlooper's office called the Triple M Bar for supplies, and the Millers joined the governor on the steps of the Capitol for a public grilling. "It is, without question, one of the great taste sensations one can experience in life," the governor said, giddy even in the aftermath of the bitter loss. "Now we're ready! Can we eat?"
Mary and David Miller's ranch, three hours south of Denver and not far from Rocky Ford, grew out of the sands of an old melon farm on what was once called Buckeye Hill. Although no juicy cantaloupes grow from this dry ground today, the Triple M lambs still feast on their fair share of melons. The Millers will march the flock down to a neighbor's farm to eat whatever is on those fields: vegetable stubble, rotten produce, you name it. "The farmers want everything off." David says. "We do tillage operations for them, in that we remove all the vegetable residue on top."
From onions to melons to chiles, everything grown in the area is fair game for these sheep. "It's kinda cute — they're like humans, because they have their favorites," Mary says. "Okra and eggplant are probably the last things they like to eat."
The diet gives Triple M lamb a unique taste. "People always refer to lamb being gamey," says Elise Wiggins. "I love lamb, personally, and I love the gaminess of it. But this one, it's hard to describe. It has more of a floral note to the meat — because of the melons — than does, say, the lamb that feeds on grass up on the Western Slope."
And her customers notice the difference, adds Wiggins: "I find that whenever I cook their lamb, in particular, people always say, 'I hate lamb, but this is delicious.' They say that every single time."
Before they became sheep ranchers, the Millers were working for the United States Department of Agriculture, focusing on natural-resources conservation across much of southeastern Colorado. They became familiar with the lamb producers and wool growers of the region, and when they were looking for additional adventure, they decided to give ranching a try. "I liked what I saw," David recalls. "I liked the people who were participating. I liked the philosophy, the grittiness...and I understood that there would be hardships, and there would be challenges every day."
"That's why we bought the ranch, for retirement," Mary says. "Neither one of us is one to not have something to do."
So they kept their day jobs and started small at the Triple M Bar. They tried raising cattle, "but sheep seemed to work well for us," David says. Their first flock was blackface Suffolk sheep; then they purchased a few Warhill sheep, a breed known for its multiple births and caring instincts. Many of the ewes now grazing on the ranch are descendants of these Warhills.
Sheep are not the only animals raised on the Triple M Bar. Because mountain lions lurk just across the river and coyotes are a constant threat, soon after they bought the ranch, David started breeding dogs to guard the sheep. And not just any dogs. These are the proud Great Pyrenees: giant fluffy mounds of canine with a deep, clear bark. The puppies learn how to protect their flock almost from birth. "They have a natural guarding instinct; they grow up with the older dogs and learn from them," says David.
They are not house pets. "They are not played with," Mary points out. "It's a natural instinct; there's nothing that we do to train them." In the presence of their owners, the dogs are docile. But as the Millers show visitors around the ranch, the dogs follow in a tight formation, watching for any sudden threats.
The dogs are in almost as much demand as the Triple M lamb; Great Pyrenees pups have been sold to ranchers all over surrounding states. "They've gone to guard everything from chickens and geese to cattle and horses," Mary says.
One of the Pyrenees, Emma, recently gave birth to a litter of eight puppies — two of which are already spoken for. "Once they're old enough, Emma will start taking them out amongst the pen," Mary explains. "She'll take them out into the pen and introduce them to the sheep. And as the puppies get confident and more independent, they'll go out and be independent with the mamas and babies."
And once they reach maturity, they're guard dogs for life. "They will guard the flock to the death," she says. "Unfortunately, we've lost some when they were younger. They will chase predators.... If something is threatening their sheep, they pay attention to nothing else."
Lamb conquered America before the Spanish ever did. According to Jeffrey Pilcher's 2012 treatise on the history of Mexican food, Planet Taco, sheep and cattle brought from Europe by Spanish conquistadores were set free to forage, trampling all over the country ahead of the Spanish armies. As the ani mals feasted on native crops, the natives fought bitterly against these incursions on their land. "By the end of the colonial era," Pilcher writes, "the battle had reached a stalemate, both geographic and social, that left a strong regional impact on the cuisines of New Spain."
Before the Spanish arrived and their livestock became dominant, the indigenous people living in what would become Colorado had only two domesticated animals for food: turkeys and small, hairless dogs. But cattle and sheep spread quickly. Much like cattle ranching, explains local historian Tom Noel, sheep ranching "starts with Spanish-speaking people bringing sheep up from New Mexico and the Rio Grande."
The Trujillo Homesteads in the San Luis Valley, which were recently designated a National Historic Landmark, are preserved as a microcosm of this period. Teofilo Trujillo built an adobe-style home in what is now Alamosa County in the mid-to-late 1860s and became one of the area's largest sheepherders. This earned him the ire of the mostly white cattlemen, who resented ravenous sheep over-grazing the grasslands and making them unsuitable for cattle.
Conflicts between cattle ranchers and sheep ranchers had flared up before, but the conflicts in Colorado and Wyoming were particularly vicious. In 1894, a gang of cowboys stampeded roughly 3,800 sheep to their deaths in Parachute Creek, sixty miles south of Meeker; a sheepherder who tried to stop the slaughter got a bullet in his hip for his trouble. It's estimated that between 1870 and 1920, more than fifty people were killed as these sheep wars raged across the West.
"It was also a racial war between Anglo cattlemen and Hispanic sheepmen," notes Noel. "They killed a lot of sheep, drove them over cliffs, clubbed them to death, shot them." In 1902, local cattle ranchers killed ninety of Trujillo's sheep and later burned his house to the ground, running him out of town. His cattle-ranching son's Western-style log cabin now sits on the homestead.
Despite the challenges, sheep far outnumbered cattle in Colorado by 1900, reaching a peak of over three and a half million head in 1930, according to statistics compiled by the National Agricultural Statistics Service. But soon after World War II, lamb production and consumption took a nosedive, as families left the farms and consumers began depending on meat shipped from centralized slaughterhouses. "Coming out of the Depression, it was a social commentary on you if you were eating lamb," David Miller says. "It became out of fashion to have sheep, because that indicated you were a small-time guy. It was a stigma, almost, and that's where it started."
As a result, today cattle outnumber sheep almost four to one in Colorado, and much of the livestock industry is controlled by large producers with thousands and thousands of animals. Most American consumers far prefer beef to lamb. "In the center of the country, the Midwest, there's not much demand for lamb," David notes. "People would buy lamb for Easter, but that was it."
And when they buy lamb, it's often leaner, cheaper "imports from Australia and New Zealand, which represent roughly 50 percent of what's in the marketplace," says the American Lamb Board's Megan Wortman.
Bonnie Brown, whose Colorado Woolgrowers Association represents 150 Colorado producers, suggests that Oceanic lamb is cheaper because of inferior feeding practices and genetics. "They simply don't have the production costs that we do," she says.
Although King Soopers carries domestic lamb and Colorado Safeway stores carry 100 percent Rocky Mountain lamb, most grocery stores and restaurants do not — if they carry lamb at all. Much of the lamb produced in this state is still shipped to the coasts for the enjoyment of celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and burgeoning populations of Asian and Mediterranean immigrants. "We're the third-largest-producing state, but Colorado's not a huge consuming state, believe it or not," Wortman says.
Slowly, though, that's beginning to change.
Mary Miller is taking full advantage of Triple M Bar's place in the Colorado food chain. "We smaller producers have the niche, in that we have people who want to buy from smaller ranchers," she explains. "People that they get to meet and know."
That was the attraction for Elise Wiggins, who started looking for sources to supply Panzano with whole animals when she took over as executive chef in 2005. "Steers, beef, hogs, you name it," she says. "Not a lot of people were looking to get whole animals, until the third and fourth year I was here — and it was tough to find them. Finally, I talked to a guy at the American Lamb Council, and he suggested that I talk to a couple of different lamb producers that were here in Colorado. Triple M was one of them, and it was a beautiful connection."
Teri Rippeto of Potager is another longtime Triple M Bar booster, and other chefs are now looking to source meat locally — and finding a number of options. "From nine years ago, Colorado has really come around with getting the access to the ranchers and the farmers that we need," Wiggins says.
But few ranchers define "access" the same way as the Millers, who deliver every carcass in person. "It comes from our hand to them," David says. "And we have security that way."
Two years ago, they expanded that access to a broader audience by opening a stand at the Boulder Farmers' Market, where they educate consumers on both the deliciousness of the lamb and the wonders of the Great Pyrenees. The stories of the dogs help draw potential shoppers; the Triple M Bar lamb keeps them coming back. "We helped — and not on a national scale — but we helped people be reintroduced to lamb by having that product available to them and convincing people that they ought to try this," David says.
Mary has been manning the stand at the Saturday market since 2011, adding that to duties that include delivering to the fourteen-plus restaurants that use their lamb, speaking on behalf of the state's Colorado Proud program as an agriculture ambassador, and actually ranching. Shortly after Triple M Bar started selling at the market, David was put temporarily out of commission after he fell sixteen feet from a trailer piled high with hay.
At that point, Mary had to decide whether to keep her job at the USDA or pursue the lambing life full-time. "I realized I can't do my job and the meat business; I had to do one or the other," she remembers. "It was a big ol' leap of faith. I really felt we could do well with the meat business, if I could devote all my time to that."
But retirement — if you can really call it that — has other benefits. "It is very rewarding when you're at the market and people come up to you and say, 'Oh, thank you for what you do. We know you work hard,'" she says. "We've had a lot of converts, haven't we?" she asks her husband, who retired from the USDA the following spring — just in time for last year's lambing season.
Ranching is hard work, but they don't regret a minute of it — or their work pushing Colorado lamb. "David searched far and wide for a wife whose name would match Triple M," Mary says. "I'm Mary Margaret Miller. I tell people that's why he married me."
The truth behind the ranch's name is not quite that cute. Before he passed on, David's father was the third M in the Miller brand. Today David, Mary and their son, Zach, are the three Ms. Kelsie and Cassie, Mary and David's granddaughters, help out at the ranch — four generations of one family, building on a life and livelihood that so many had fought and died for. "This had always been our goal," Mary says. "We always had wanted to be old sheep ranchers."
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.