Longform

Can Triple M Bar's flock create a Colorado lamb comeback?

Page 3 of 4

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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Utterback
Contact: Chris Utterback