MISSOURI HEIGHTS — A Swiss man trained as a baker and a small-town Minnesota girl who always wanted to be a farmer are playing a big part in preserving ranching in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Felix and Sarah Tornare aren't the only family clinging to ranching life in the area, but they grabbed a lead role in fall 2010 when the Aspen Skiing Co. signed an agreement to buy their beef for its on-mountain restaurants. The deal bumped the Tornares' Milagro Ranch into the big leagues — and provided an opportunity they relish.
The Tornares supplied about 20,000 pounds of ground beef to the Skico for hamburgers, chili and meatloaf specials at places like the Ullrhof at Snowmass, Cloud 9 at Aspen Highlands and the Sundeck at Aspen Mountain. (The Tornares were already providing beef to Montagna in The Little Nell hotel and the Ajax Tavern before the deal was signed for the on-mountain restaurants.)
The Skico was attracted by the Tornares' dedication to raising cattle on grass and not pumping them full of hormones or antibiotics. Even though it cost the company $50,000 more than last ski season to buy ground beef locally, it was “the right thing to do,” said Auden Schendler, Skico's vice president of sustainability.
Buying beef from Milagro Ranch reduces the Skico's carbon footprint by lessening the transportation required to bring in the beef and eliminates the need to grow grain; it preserves open space and agricultural lands as well as the ranching culture in the Roaring Fork Valley; and the beef is healthier because it has less saturated fat, Schendler said.
Most appealing to him, though, is avoiding beef produced by conglomerates that rely on feedlots, hormones and antibiotics.
“If you see a movie like Food Inc., you don't want to eat a “Big Beef' burger,” Schendler said.
The Tornares didn't envision themselves as beef producers in their humble ranching beginnings. Felix was born and raised in Switzerland and spent three years as an apprentice learning the bakery trade. He started Louis Swiss Pastry in Aspen with his brother in 1982, and he still owns it. He and Sarah shared an interest in farming and ranching and started dabbling in it after they were married.
They essentially trained themselves to be farmers and ranchers by reading tons of material and consulting with old ranch hands. They leased ground in Missouri Heights in the 1990s to grow and sell hay when all the farmland started disappearing for residential development. They realized they needed to secure land of their own so they bought a compact spread of 87 acres on Missouri Heights. Their pastures and fields roll like ocean waves east of County Road 100 just after it tops out on the sweeping heights. The stark cliffs of Basalt Mountain frame the landscape to the east. Majestic Mount Sopris looms to the south.
They bought the land in 1998, did their barn-raising in 1999 and built a house in 2000. They christened their ranch Milagro because it's Spanish for miracle.
“It was a frickin' miracle we could buy this,” Sarah laughed.
They purchased tractors, planters, hay balers and other equipment at auctions throughout western Colorado. Felix became a jack-of-all trades out of necessity — their used equipment was always breaking down. They were undaunted by their lack of experience.
“This was all just totally trial and error,” Sarah said. “You absolutely cannot be paralyzed.”
Their inexperience was a blessing, Felix said, because they weren't stuck on old ways of doing business. They were curious, flexible and open-minded.
And they were in hog heaven. “I always wanted a horse and a dog. That was about all,” Felix said.
A savory discovery
The Tornares started with four head of cattle once they settled their ranch. One day they took a cow to the butcher for processing but were informed by the brand inspector it was pregnant. Embarrassed, they scrambled to replace it with a steer that had been raised munching grass on their ranch. They decided they couldn't sell the meat because the steer hadn't been fattened up on grain.
They kept the meat for themselves and, to their surprise, found it was superb, unlike beef they previously tasted. It inspired them to explore the possibility of raising and marketing grass-fed beef. It opened a new world to them, one with a lot of appeal.
While bumping along in a tractor and planting a field one recent day, Felix describes what attracted him to ranching and farming.
“If this country goes the way it's going ... ,” Felix says, letting the sentence tail off. He's racing to plant seeds of peas, oats, grass and alfalfa in a field they lease west of Milagro Ranch.
It's a sun-drenched Wednesday but Sarah, his official weather forecaster, has informed him a fast-moving storm is rushing into the state and it will be raining or snowing by that night. He wants to plant the seeds to take advantage of the moisture. He includes peas in the mix because the plants add nitrogen to the soil. He deplores the use of fertilizer. The pea vines will be harvested before the peas fill their pods to provide feed for the cattle.
Sarah said providing the right type of grass and feed to the cattle is the key to high-quality, grass-fed beef. Some grass-fed operations don't let their cattle age long enough, which can lead to a gamy taste. Milagro Ranch avoids that. Sarah said their product “has a beefier taste” than any beef she has tasted.
Felix's work in the field provides a rare scene in today's Roaring Fork Valley. The bright green John Deere tractor pulls a 12-foot-wide planter behind in the mocha-colored field. An earthy smell fills the air — like the rich, moist smell when you finally get around to turning your flower beds and vegetable gardens in the spring. The brown soil contrasts sharply with the emerging green of the grass covering half the field and the snow covering the bare aspens and dark timber on Red Table Mountain in the distance.
Felix can't take time off to chat, but he's happy to let a visitor ride along in the cab of the tractor.
“We're eating so much junk, it's affecting our health,” he continues. Americans spend such a small percentage of their incomes on food, he said, and a huge share on health care. There seems to be an awakening, among some people anyway, that the equation is out of whack.
“We have to spend money on food to save money on health care,” he said.
A fair number of Roaring Fork Valley residents share that philosophy. They are willing to spend more for locally-grown food and locally raised meat. They are willing to spend more for the peace of mind of knowing where their food comes from. And they are willing to spend more for the effort that goes into operating a small ranch and raising grass-fed beef.
The Tornares' commitment to raising food the old-fashioned way and preserving the valley's ranching heritage goes beyond beef. They raise hens and sell the eggs. They rent roughly 600 acres of land for pastures, fields that are planted with specialty crops and to grow hay.
They feed the hay to the cattle they keep on the ranch through the winter and they sell the rest to local horse boarders and ranchers to supplement the ranch's income.
To reduce the ranch's carbon footprint, Felix mixed their own biofuel with an additive to vegetable oil collected from local restaurants. The ranch's tractors and pick-up run on it. He produced about 2,500 gallons in 2010.
“It's messy, oily and stinky,” Sarah said, “but worth it.”
Their commitment to the labor-intensive operation has gained them admirers.
“So much goes into it, that's why I appreciate the work of Felix and Sarah,” said Jim Butchart, executive chef of the Skico's mountain division. He pitched the idea last fall of expanding the Skico's purchase of locally-raised beef. Skico officials held a taste test among a handful of local ranches, and Milagro's beef was judged best.
A special breed
The Tornares' awakening to the world of grass-fed beef led them to raise Australian lowline angus, a miniature breed known for a mellow disposition and for being extremely efficient to grass feed. Provide them with hay in the winter and grazing pastures in the summer, along with salt licks and minerals, and you have happy cows.
They bought 10 mother cows in 2004. They raise the calves their cows produce and also buy yearlings from other ranchers, mainly their neighbors, Kit and Mike Strang. They also buy a few head from Monroe Summers, who leases the city of Aspen's Cozy Point Ranch.
Over the years, their herd has grown as sales of their beef have increased and, particularly, with the Skico deal. They have 120 head now, including 20 mother cows. (Two African Watusi, a bull and a cow with tremendous horns that would put a Texas Longhorn to shame, keep the herd company.)
The cows are artificially inseminated at the same time of year, so the Tornares can count on calving in mid-April. The first black calf arrived this spring on April 14.
The calves are ear-tagged shortly after they are born, but otherwise have little human contact. The cattle aren't pets, but they are treated with a little extra compassion. At most ranches, when a cow doesn't produce a calf, it is shipped off for slaughter. Ranchers generally figure it's not worth feeding the cow for another year in hopes that she will produce a calf. It's purely an economic decision.
“We don't do that here at Milagro Ranch,” Sarah said. “They get a second chance.”
The cattle at Milagro are ready for processing in 24 to 30 months, Felix said. They will weigh around 1,100 pounds. Regular angus that are given hormones and finished with grain at feedlots are usually ready in 16 to 18 months and weigh 1,400 to 1,500 pounds, he said.
Milagro Ranch processed 25 cattle between November 2009 and March 2010. That jumped to 100 cattle over the same period last winter, thanks in large part to the Skico contract.
The Tornares never use hormones and only use antibiotics when it is a matter of life or death. “Only if we've tried everything else and it's not going to work,” Felix said. If antibiotics are used, that animal isn't sold as grass-fed beef. It is sent to a standard feedlot.
Milagro Ranch's operation has also been certified for humanely raised and handled beef by the organization Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), a nonprofit organization that works to improve the lives of farm animals in food production.
Inspectors from HFAC visited the ranch to judge the quality of the hay the cattle were fed, how often they were out of pens and in pastures, if the fences were safe for the animals, whether or not they were harassed by dogs and a multitude of other factors. The Tornares' processor also had to be certified humane. Sarah said it would have made no sense for the ranch to strive for the certification if the cattle weren't humanely handled when they were processed. Their processor, Homestead in Delta, received the HFAC seal of approval.
Milagro Ranch relies on word-of-mouth rather than advertising. “We don't even have a website,” Felix said.
But word-of-mouth works well when your beef is served at the restaurant in a five-star hotel, the restaurants at a premiere ski resort in North America and top-notch eateries like Six89 in Carbondale and the Pullman in Glenwood Springs.
The only retail outlet for Milagro beef is Roxy's Market at the Airport Business Center. The Tornares sell from their ranch and invite customers to check out their operation.
Felix won't hazard a guess on where the operation is going in the next five years. He didn't anticipate the growth that has already occurred. “If you would have asked me five years ago, I would have been way off the mark,” he said.
One certainty is the Skico's contract for the 2011-12 ski season.
“We couldn't have been happier with the way it worked out,” Butchart said. “I would say 100 percent satisfaction on this burger and this move.”
That will keep the Tornares doing what they love. Felix can talk at length about his concerns over proper diet for humans' health. His concern seems genuine. But you can also tell that his hard work at the ranch is something he truly enjoys.
“It's a fabulous thing to produce your own food,” he said while refilling seed on the day he was planting a field. “[And] look where we work,” he said while soaking in surrounding hillsides and mountains.