Chef News

Snow Creek Ranch Stakes a Claim on Farm-to-Table Dinners

In mid-June, Michael Long — a founding partner of Opus Restaurant and the current executive chef at Le Central — presented the first farm dinner at Snow Creek Ranch in Larkspur; owners Joe and Michelle Kopriva plan on making the dinners a regular summer occurrence. Long cooked up a meal featuring tri-tip from the Kopriva family’s herd and served it with locally grown produce, farm-fresh milk (soaked into smashed new potatoes) and poached eggs from chickens that roamed the grounds within clucking distance of the long table where thirty or so guests gathered to enjoy the summer evening — and the food. While the beef served that night hadn’t grazed on the Larkspur acreage, the program is definitely a family operation.

The Koprivas have been in the cattle industry for twenty years; they’ve sold beef directly to customers in the Denver area for half of that. The beef is raised on a ranch near Coffeyville, Kansas, overseen by Michelle’s father, Stan “Doc” Haag (who is also a practicing family doctor). The registered Angus herd is known for its marbling and the size of the rib-eye steaks produced, Michelle says, so much so that part of the business is dedicated to providing stocker cattle to enrich other herds.

The family maintains about 250 “mama cows” on 3,000 acres and brings about 125 head a year to market for butchering and sale — almost all of that to customers at farmers’ markets along the Front Range (sixteen of them, including Dillon and Estes Park). The cattle are free-range and primarily grass-fed and flax-finished — meaning they get sixty to ninety days of flax, which is taken out to the pastures as flaxseed feeder panels and licks, on top of their regular diet of forage. The cattle are not certified organic, a USDA designation that Michelle says can actually end up being harmful to cows that otherwise lead a natural life on plentiful pastureland.

Instead, they follow a program similar to what Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms teaches in his books. The cattle are rotated from pasture to pasture and raised free of hormones and antibiotics, except in situations when an animal gets cuts or eye infections (which cows are prone to, since they spend so much time with their faces buried in grasses and weeds) — something that would disqualify the meat from being certified as organic. When the cows aren’t grazing on a specific pasture, “johnny houses” for prairie chickens and quail are moved in so that the birds can forage for worms and dig and peck the soil, which helps break down the manure left by the cows.

Because the cattle are not kept in feedlots, the spread of parasitic worms is not an issue, so de-worming medicine is not needed. And that’s a good thing, Michelle explains, because manure from cows given de-worming medication is toxic to dung beetles and microorganisms that would otherwise help break it down so that the nutrients can be absorbed by the plants the cows eat. The result of following a more natural cycle is more nutritious forage for the cows, which means better meat. The quails and chickens also do their part to add nutrients to the soil.

Michelle has no issues with using grain to supplement a cow’s diet. “It’s when they’re force-fed grains only and don’t have enough variety in their diets” that problems arise, she explains. At Snow Creek Ranch, the cattle are given oats, rye and barley in drought years. And the standard flax-finishing produces more intra-muscular fat and ups the omega-3 fatty acids while decreasing cholesterol. “It also gives a sweeter taste, we believe,” she says.

The family also works with an all-natural herd nutritionist to ensure that the cattle maintain peak health, especially when they’re calving. “Our mama cows are treated better when they’re pregnant than I am,” Michelle jokes, adding, “The most important thing is that they are well taken care of.”
That attention to the quality of life for the herd is evidenced by the ranch’s motto: “Grandma kisses every cow.”

Michelle’s father was never interested in selling meat to restaurants, but wanted to introduce restaurant-quality — or better — steaks to home cooks, so at first Michelle would get sides from him and take them to her church. But her friends and neighbors wanted more, so the family began selling at farmers’ markets in and around Denver. A year and a half ago, Joe and Michelle purchased the farm in Larkspur, and now customers can also buy beef — and other farm products — there, too.

The cattle are trucked from the Kansas ranch (usually sixteen at a time, but no more than 35) to a USDA-approved slaughterhouse in Colorado. There are only eight in the state, Michelle says, and only a few of them will work with Snow Creek because their production level is so small. From there, the meat is broken down into usable cuts by Double J Meats in Pierce. (Customers who purchase entire sides must pick up the meat there.)

The supply chain from Snow Creek Ranch to the customer may seem long, but it’s actually the shortest route from rancher to consumer allowed under USDA regulations. The family has never seriously considered selling to grocery stores or restaurants; the direct-to-customer business is good enough that the meat sells out every year. “We were approached by Whole Foods several years ago,” Michelle says, but she was put off when the representative from the company said he was only looking for “something palatable.”

The Koprivas’ Larkspur ranch is more than just a distribution point for beef; it’s also a working farm with a growing number of products. Michelle raises chickens and sells both the meat and the eggs, noting that she can barely keep up with the demand for the eggs. When she’s busy and customers stop by, she sometimes sends them straight to the coop with a couple of empty cartons and some words of encouragement.

There are also new beehives that will soon produce honey, and strawberries and raspberries planted near the hives for the bees to pollinate. Part of the farm is rented out for boarding horses, and professional horse trainer Joanne Pavlis, who runs her business on the farm, is working on earning permaculture certification and introducing those farming methods to the land in order to produce vegetables for sale. She’s already set up a straw-bale garden (where plants are grown directly in straw bales) for educational purposes for farm visitors.

The farm’s foothills location means that predators often wander onto the property. The Koprivas’ Great Pyrenees, Chinook, patrols the fences nightly and guards the chicken coop from bobcats. “We had a bear out here a couple of months ago,” Michelle recalls. “I thought, ‘Don’t mess with my chickens!’ — but I should have been more concerned with where my kids were.” Serving dinner outside at the farm also presents some challenges. Next time, Michelle says, she’ll remember to put a light by the outhouse; at the June dinner, guests were using their cell phones to light the way.

The family came up with the farm dinners as a way to showcase Snow Creek Ranch beef and produce from farmers in the region. The Koprivas met Michael Long many years ago, when they were all involved in the Denver International Wine Festival; Long was also the chef at a recent Snow Creek Ranch farm dinner at the Denver Botanic Gardens. He enjoys cooking with Snow Creek Ranch beef like the tri-tip he prepared at the first dinner because “small-production beef is leaner and more flavorful and…for roasts and steaks, cooking time is definitely less,” he says. “The reason mass-produced beef, such as that from IBP and ConAgra, is loaded with hormones and steroids is, one, to make more weight at sale, and two, to artificially create the texture and flavor of quality beef by rapid means.”

A second summer dinner is scheduled for July 23 (purchase tickets on the Snow Creek Ranch Eventbrite page), and New York sirloin will be on the menu, along with a gazpacho salad, Long says. “We’ll see what local produce we can get,” Michelle adds. Homemade s’mores will definitely end the meal; guests will be able to roast their marshmallows over miniature tabletop stoves. This time, Michelle will have a better idea on the timing of the food and the amount of compostable waste left at the end of the night. “I was pretty exhausted the next morning,” she says of that first dinner.

Still, diners were perfectly content to while away the evening on the spacious property, sipping farmhouse ale from Strange Craft Beer Company and wines from Colorado vintners. A tractor-pulled hayride was provided to get guests from the road to the barn, which was strung with lights for the event. The weather was still iffy in mid-June, so the long dinner table was set inside the barn, but on clear nights, future events could take place in one of the pastures or near the lily pond.

Kopriva invites everyone to stop by the Larkspur farm for beef, eggs and educational events in addition to the farm dinners, which will continue monthly into October (or as long as weather permits). You may find yourself sharing space with a few horses, some chickens and a couple of cows — but once she decides you’re no threat, Chinook will keep those bears away.

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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation