Ranching is an essential and important part of the history of the Uncompahgre Valley; to this day it directly sustains lots of families in the area. From a food perspective, good chefs know that local, seasonal ingredients make for the best dishes, and so we once again bring the two together with Downs Ranch and Eatery 66.
Raising livestock in the sense that we know it dates back to the Middle Ages, but animals have been domesticated for food use as far back 11,000 B.C. The practice of raising large herds of livestock on extensive grazing lands started in Spain and Portugal around 1000 C.E. Eventually it became firmly established in the New World of the Americas when the first Spanish explorers arrived, bringing cattle and cattle-raising expertise with them.
Today, there are several ranching operations in the Uncompahgre Valley; Downs Ranch just south of Montrose is one of them.
A Family Affair
Downs Ranch has been a working ranch for four generations. Jeff Downs, the current member of the Downs family to run the ranch, is, however, the first to make his living from it (his father and grandfather had other careers that helped fund their interest).
Downs began running the ranch in 2006 and decided he wanted to initiate a more holistic approach to farming, where the relationship between the land, the animals and the consumers was at the forefront of everything they did. Jeff and wife Jenika are also trying to instill ranch life and an appreciation for the land into their children (Jeff jokes that he hopes that will prevent them from turning the ranch into a subdivision when he’s gone).
As size goes, Downs Ranch is modest. Currently he has 40 head of cattle but that can increase to around 200 depending on the time of the year. Another factor that determines herd size is finding that all important summer pasture. Downs says that is an increasingly difficult task, whether it is trying to securing permits to graze on public land or finding private grazing (which Downs says is also getting increasingly hard due to people from around the country buying up ranches and either wanting to get into ranching and use the land themselves or not wanting any cattle on the land). Buying land for grazing isn’t a viable option either as the money that comes in isn’t enough to make the land payments.
Labor of Love
Downs estimates that it costs around $40,000 a year just to run the farm, and he says that making a living has only really been possible because the property is paid for. Even so, it is a life that isn’t for the faint of heart.
Like any businessman, Downs is always looking for ways to increase the return on his investment, and one way to do that is, especially with a smaller herd, is to sell directly to consumer and cut out some of the middle men. That is made that little bit easier when you have a great product to sell.
Downs says this year they decided to try direct to consumer sales for the first time in eight years, bringing them full circle. Eight years ago Downs sold all the cattle to a competitor and started raising organic hay. He eventually got back into raising cattle, eventually ending up selling his beef to Whole Foods among others. He is confident that selling as locally as possible is the answer. In fact, he is confident that in a few years he will be able to sell everything he produces locally. That means the quality has to be second to none.
To ensure that, Downs has operated organically for the last 16 years and have been certified since 2013.
Additionally, Downs produces 100 percent grass fed beef, which is an important distinction in beef labelling. (Since all cows feed on grass for at least a part of their lives, technically all cows are grass fed. To differentiate between those that see grass for a short period before being moved to a feedlot and those that are 100 percent grass fed, the term grass finished is used by people like Downs, even if it is in an unofficial capacity).
In terms of flavor, the breed you raise is a huge factor. Downs has a combination of red and black angus, red devon and he recently added some Galloway cows. Choosing the right breed ensures that the cows can marble and faten on grass alone.
In order to ensure that his kids have a ranch in good shape, managing the land is a priority. Raising 100 percent grass fed animals means constantly managing what the animals are eating, but also making sure the land is able to regenerate itself. Downs says one of the biggest mistakes some people make is allowing animals to graze for too long on the same piece of land as that promotes desertification as plants get eaten down and aren’t able to regenerate. Another mistake that some of those who do practice regenerative farming make, is coming back to the same land too soon.
All this means that it takes longer to produce grass-finished beef and that means it is going to cost a little more.
These steps are enough for Spencer and Katie Graves. Owners and operators of Eatery 66 in Ridgway, they are big fans of what Jeff is doing at Downs Ranch and of local producers in general. It is a cornerstone of what they do at Eatery 66.
Initially opened in May 2015 as a seasonal outdoor restaurant behind where the restaurant currently is with the 1966 Airstream as the kitchen, Eatery 66 had a beach vibe courtesy of the eight years the Graves’ spent in Costa Rica. Three years later, they moved Eatery 66 into its current location when the space became available. The timing was good as they had outgrown the Airstream. The Airstream, however, was at the heart of the identity of Eatery 66, so they decided to build it into the deck where it has served as a bar and kitchen for events.
Eatery 66 has become a staple in the Ridgway dining scene and has a loyal following, which the owners attribute to using the best local produce and products they can find.
Spencer trained at the Culinary Institute of Charleston and Katie at the College of Charleston before they moved to San Diego. From San Diego they moved to Telluride where he took positions at some notable places, including Allred’s, La Marmotte, and The New Sheridan Chop House. There was also a stint as a stagiaire (an internship in culinary circles) at Thomas Keller’s Per Se. An eight-year stay in Costa Rica was followed by a move to Ridgway and the eventual opening of Eatery 66.
Named for the 1966 Airstream, the menu at Eatery 66 is comfort food with an innovation thrown in here and there. The BLT, for example, is made with braised Korean barbecue pork belly (from Happy Hogs Farm) instead of bacon while salads and soups are dictated by seasonal produce. The 66 Burger - Downs Ranch beef, lettuce, tomato, onion, 66 sauce, American Cheese, homemade pickles on a toasted brioche bun - is probably the best selling item on the menu and one of the few mainstays.
The menu will change around mid December with French Onion Soup (with broth made from local beef, and the essential crouton using Blue Grouse Bread from Norwood) returning, Steak Frites will make cameo appearances throughout the season, and the Pork Belly BLT will likely change to a bahn mi as fresh tomatoes give way to pickled vegetables.
Utilising as many local producers as he can, including High Desert Seed and Gardens in Colona, in addition to others listed here, Spencer is one part of a very important network that affords locals and visitors the chance to eat locally and seasonally and to support small businesses, too.
Downsranch.com & eatery66.com