On the Western Slope of Colorado, 15 years ago six ranching families in the North Fork Valley decided to form a co-op in order to add more value to their livestock. Raising beef cattle without antibiotics or growth hormones, they started selling their pre-packaged, frozen meats first in Aspen and then Glenwood Springs, delivering customer orders on the third Saturday of every month. As the business rapidly grew, the ranchers then branched into pork, lamb, and even buffalo, all of which can now be purchased out of their two stores, Homestead Natural Meats in Delta and Homestead Market in Paonia.
“We make our own sausage, plus cure and smoke the bacon, ham and meat sticks,” says Dale Dexter, manager since 2006. “Everything we do here is USDA approved. During production, there is an inspector around at all times, and we even provide him with an office and shower facilities. Every morning, both the inspector and our staff check the equipment for cleanliness plus monitor to ensure that the animals are handled humanely and compassionately. We welcome that, and like having control over the entire process.”
With an average 300 days of sunshine each year, the North Fork Valley, which includes Hotchkiss, Paonia and Crawford, is well-known for its clear mountain water and abundant grass, which make perfect conditions for cattle. According to their official website, HomesteadMeats.com, each of the six suppliers have been in the valley since before 1900, with two of the ranches designated as Centennial (indicating that they’ve been owned by the same family for more than 100 years). They include Campbell and Sons; Norm and Susan Smith; Ayer and Ayer Ranch; Mount Lamborn Ranches; Karl and Joetta Burns; and LeValley Ranch, home to Robbie LeValley, a past President of the Colorado Cattleman’s Association. These ranchers have been recognized by many different organizations for their stewardship of the land. Three families received Excellence in Range Awards by the Society of Range Management; one has received Range Family of the Year; and another was named the Soil Conservationist of the Year. That long term experience and “know how” passed down from many generations also helps the livestock to thrive.
Having total control over the production process from pasture to consumer “insures that we produce the highest quality meat products.” Each carcass is given a 14-day aging period, which is a “time-honored practice” that makes the cuts tender and flavorful. Customers can order a quarter, a half or an entire beef, which is the most economical, and the experienced meat cutters on site will prepare the steaks, roasts, ribs, tenderloin and burger specifically to their needs. And understanding that every animal is an investment, Homestead provides custom services for folks who raise their own animals, including harvesting, processing and curing. Within the community, “For the last two years we’ve supplied ground beef for the North Fork Schools,” Dale pointed out. “We’re working with the school district to enhance the quality of the ground beef that is being served while supporting local ranches.” In addition to selling a wide variety of meats, the two Homestead stores offer cheeses that were aged and packaged at the Rocking W Dairy in Olathe, plus locally-made jams, jellies, sauces and honey. There are cuts of buffalo from a Denver supplier, and you can even find Salmon and Halibut that get sent over from Crested Butte. The selection is impressive, yet still another factor has earned high marks for this co-op: it’s the willingness of the employees to be helpful. In charge of a well-trained and qualified staff of 22 (which includes management) Dale explains proudly, “We stress to our employees to do good customer service from slaughter floor to front desk,” which means going the extra mile ... even if it’s just to put together a sack of marrow bones for the family dog. Can’t find what you’re looking for in the display freezers? Dale Hall (the office manager, and Dale Dexter’s assistant) or Joetta Burns (who is in charge of taking customer orders) are happy to slip into the main building for an extra search. But as Robbie LeValley, who is now the County Administrator adds, “as part of a co-op, we all help when needed.” Working together in Delta County, these six ranch families encourage consumers to experience the difference in their products. ❖