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."