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Frost Ranch south of Fountain hopes to raise awareness with its ethical approach 

New horizons

click to enlarge Sam Frost checks a sheep pasture on the ranch, which raises grass-fed lamb and beef. - HELEN ROBINSON
  • Helen Robinson
  • Sam Frost checks a sheep pasture on the ranch, which raises grass-fed lamb and beef.

For Jay and Sam Frost, the Frost Livestock Ranch is work and home, the heart and soul of their family — and worth every hour poured into it by four generations.

It’s also an endless challenge and a source of sudden heartache. They’ve been squeezed by rising costs, shrinking margins and aging infrastructure. They’ve risen above floodwaters and they’ve been battered by back-to-back years of ferocious hailstorms. 

The Frosts produce ethically raised, grass-fed and grass-finished lamb and beef on meadows in Fountain and prairies stretching out east. They grow spinach, arugula, beets, onions, potatoes, beans, chiles and leeks in fields that are never sprayed. Planting, irrigating, weeding and harvesting are all done using holistic and traditional methods, and they’re committed to sustainable and regenerative practices. It’s time-intensive, and it’s never easy.

“But for some reason, it’s worth it — you know?” Sam says. “For some reason we wake up every day and we’re like, ‘OK! Here we go again.’”

This year, the father-and-son team are doing the work their forefathers did, but they’ll also do something entirely new: They’re opening the “Big House” to weddings, events and farm stays; and the ranch, its meadows and its gardens to farm dinners.

Organized by A Grazing Life, the farm dinners aim to bridge the gap between the public and local farms, ranches, wineries, breweries and chefs, to promote local foods and raise awareness of sustainable ranching and agriculture. 

For the Frosts, it’s not just a way to bolster their bottom line and share their love for the land. It could be the thing that keeps the ranch in the family — and running.

“That’s huge. That’s the main thing for us,” says Jay, managing partner of Frost Livestock Company. “You talk about [economic] sustainability — we’re not there yet. I don’t think anybody really is. You can’t get a thin dime out of it, sometimes. We would love to be profitable all the time, and that’s not easy — but we’re getting closer and closer.”

click to enlarge A wall in the Big House at Frost Ranch is papered with bonds that lost their value in the Great Depression. - HELEN ROBINSON
  • Helen Robinson
  • A wall in the Big House at Frost Ranch is papered with bonds that lost their value in the Great Depression.

Jay grew up on the ranch, one of nine kids in the historic home they call the Big House, built by his father in 1958.

Frost Ranch is adjacent to Hanna Ranch, which Jay’s mother Mary owned with her husband. After he died, Mary Hanna married John Frost and moved to Frost Ranch. Jay Frost is the first child of that second marriage, and Kirk Hanna, the subject of legendary local photographer Myron Wood’s photo book Little Wrangler, written with wife Nancy Wood in 1966, was Jay Frost’s half brother.  

A local icon, Kirk Hanna grew up to be a trailblazing sustainable rancher who prioritized protecting the environment he relied on. Hanna completed suicide in 1998, and while his life circumstances were complicated at the time, it’s known that he worried about the financial future of his ranch.

There are obvious parallels in the stories of the Frost and Hanna ranches — the environmentalism, the financial struggles — but the Frost family ranch appears to have a brighter future.

Jay says he’s watched other farmers sell land and water rights and wondered if he’d have to do the same one day. Thanks to Sam, it won’t come to that.

“Fortunately, Sam, as a young man, wants to continue this,” he says. “If he had not really wanted to do that, it would’ve been hard for me to keep going.” 

“Working with A Grazing Life, having these dinners, getting into guest services, definitely emerges as a light at the end of the tunnel,” Sam says. “I can see that this could work out as part of our diversification — and we need to do it. How am I going to support a family down the road? That’s sort of what I’m thinking. 

“And I want to do it because it’s my home, and I’ve grown up here, and I really value this way of life and I want to raise my kids that way. How am I going to do that? That’s something I ask myself every day and that’s why we work so hard — and why we think this partnership is so important.” 

click to enlarge Mike Preisler (left) and Sam Frost at the farm dinner site. - HELEN ROBINSON
  • Helen Robinson
  • Mike Preisler (left) and Sam Frost at the farm dinner site.

Mike Preisler founded A Grazing Life to reconnect consumers to their local farms and ranches. Through the farm dinners, A Grazing Life works to build community and partners with the Palmer Land Trust to raise money for conservation in Southern Colorado.

“This will be our third summer doing farm dinners, and our first summer here at Frost,” Preisler says. “We’re super excited to partner with Frost Livestock this year and bring a ton of people out here — get them to meet the ranchers, give them a tour of the place, learn how to buy meat from these guys, show them everything that’s going on. 

“A Grazing Life organizes the farm dinner events and private events because these guys work 24/7. Farmers don’t have time to take on anything more.”

Preisler approached Sam Frost with the idea — “Really, I just sat down and said, ‘You guys want to throw parties out here?’” he says — and the Frosts knew the time was right.

They’d had a couple of weddings on the ranch over the years; they’d briefly dipped a toe in the waters with Airbnb three years back; then they’d spent the past two years restoring the six-bedroom, five-bathroom Big House. 

“We have room to do this now,” Sam says, “and we’re transitioning from a big vegetables operation to a smaller one, so we have a little bit more time to look at a guest services enterprise. It fits perfectly, and we think there’s a market there.

“We want to sort of re-spark this local food movement by bringing people down here, showing them what we do, how their food is being produced, and connecting with them.”

Building lasting relationships between consumers and ranchers, Sam says, could create the momentum Frost Livestock needs.

“I think if we were to go to a restaurant in town and tell them, ‘We grow vegetables and sell meat,’ they’re not quite ready for it,” he says. “I think they think the local food movement is a great idea — but they’re not ready to pay for it, and I don’t think the customers also are ready to purchase that meal for a little bit extra. If we can help educate them here, they can go to the restaurants and be like, ‘There’s great food right there and it tastes better.’

“How does education help us? It helps when they start asking questions like, ‘Why does it increase the price a little bit?’ or ‘Why is the price dropping?’ All those little details come into play and they’re more informed — and it turns into a great relationship. That’s a really smart customer.”

click to enlarge Chef Jacob Cheatham creates dinners. - HELEN ROBINSON
  • Helen Robinson
  • Chef Jacob Cheatham creates dinners.

The farm dinners are not cheap or simple undertakings, and planning starts months in advance. The most recent farm dinner, July 14, featured Chef Jacob Cheatham of Loyal Coffee Co., cocktail expert Montana Horsfall, live music from the Tejon Street Corner Thieves, the brewers from Brass Brewing Co., beer and cocktails included all night, dancing, yard games, a farm tour (“We’ve got this big trailer that we load up on, and people get a huge kick out of that,” Preisler says, “like they’re kids again.”) and a five-course dinner under the stars. The next dinner, Aug. 11, features Chef Mario Vasquez of Colorado Craft, with Paradox Beer Company, Sette Dolori Winery and cocktails from The Archives.

“We promote it as a ‘farm dinner’ but the events are so much more than that,” Preisler says. “You call it a farm dinner because that registers with people — they’re like, ‘Oh, I know kind of what that is.’ But when they come down here, we make sure they get an education on what’s going on. Every event is a different brewery, a different distillery or craft cocktail place, a different restaurant. We’re not doing the same event over and over — and everything’s local.  

“The value is so there for the dinners. Right now they’re priced at $135 a ticket, and people will leave hugs-and-kisses happy at the end of the night...

“The dinner is … the reason most people are there, and we do five courses, locally sourced, from the best chefs in the area. They’ll have a chance to talk to the chefs, see what they’re using, how they’re cooking it, how they’re sourcing it — we don’t just drop a plate of food in front of you...

“Looking at the value of that — Sam made a great point the other day: If you were to go to one of the steakhouses in town, and you spent five hours there eating and drinking — even without live music and without a farm tour — you’re going to spend that, if not more, and you would not have that experience.”

The first year, Preisler says, it was a challenge to get people out to the farm dinners, but this year they sold 200 tickets in the first hour after sales opened. Five percent of ticket sales goes directly to Palmer Land Trust to support their work protecting Southern Colorado’s lands for present and future generations — an objective that fits with the Frosts’ focus on conservation.

“We’re going to blow their minds about what this place does, how they’re incorporating all these different sustainable aspects into ranching,” Preisler says. “Ranching can have such a negative connotation for people because of the commercial ranching operations. People just think ranching is like, turn and burn, destroy whatever ground you’re using. So we bring them out and show them sustainable grazing methods and what these guys are doing and how it works.”

Jay hopes those insights will help the community understand that conservation matters for farmers’ and ranchers’ very survival. 

“For example, this stormwater debacle that we find ourselves in — Colorado Springs sheds a lot of water and it goes right through here,” he says. “We fight with this thing all the time. So if we can get clients clued in — it’s all connected. We hope to have a little bit more political sway within the region, because of this. We can talk to these folks at the markets and the dinners, and we explain what we’re facing — the negative and positive — so then we’re building our own little economy. We used to have this connection way back when. We’re coming back to the future.”

For Chef Cheatham, the farm dinners are all about a standout experience and an important education.

“There’s so much value of actually showing people where their food comes from, whether it’s produce or the animals — and show them responsible, effective farming,” he says, and the Springs community is gradually becoming more interested in sustainable food production.

“I think they’re right at the cusp of wanting to be educated,” he says. “And that’s the biggest step: breaking people away from chain restaurants, them wanting to have a really great experience. And now as chefs and as purveyors, we have the opportunity and the obligation to educate them — not only on what’s best for them, but what’s best for their local economy, and what’s best for the environment. That’s what these dinners are providing: They’re providing an eye-opening experience of all the things that are out there for them.”

There’s no way to describe to people the difference between, say, ethically raised pork from a ranch and the pork you pull off a supermarket shelf, Cheatham says.

“The best way to do it is to let them taste it,” he says. “Those experiences — you can’t fabricate that. There’s no way to explain to somebody who’s never had something so loved and cared for, presented to them. I always see that as a huge responsibility — not only to take the best care of what I got, but to present it to them in a way that is just going to blow their minds.”

For Cheatham, his job is done when the relationships and the impacts stretch beyond the dinner.

“I think there’s a really big disconnect between where people get their food and the production of it. When people normally go into a supermarket to the meat section, all they see is a pork chop,” he says. “I want them to go in and understand: These are animals. What can we put on the table? What can we not waste? Where are my cheaper cuts? Where are my butchers at in town? Where are the smaller places who are actually trying to use every single piece of the animal — and how do I get ahold of these people? I think these dinners create an avenue for that. So they get to meet a new farmer, they get to see a new way of ordering meat, they get to know where this meat is [available] in town… We want people to be able to understand where they can get ahold of it and how to support responsible agriculture.

“I think it’s so dope to be able to go out and show people the farmers’ and ranchers’ connection to the land, the appreciation and respect that they show to it, and how they can support that. I think the more people understand, and the more that they support [sustainable food] with their everyday dollar, bigger businesses might start making changes because they see people falling in line with these ideals.”

For the Frosts, it’s a far better idea than shipping their product cross-country and negotiating with the big meat packers.

“[That’s] a price taker, not a price maker. You [as the rancher] don’t make the price; you take whatever they give you,” Jay says. “The big packers, they continue to try to corner the market and put the prices down so they can make more money. And we’re trying to produce with higher costs all the time — interest, equipment — and that stuff is crazy, this stuff is so expensive now.”

“And then we’re making no money when we go to sell it,” Sam says. “But if we can create the demand locally — we know the market’s there. It’s huge. There’s a lot of people. If we can create the demand, it’ll work. It’s a huge ask, and it’s going to be quite a challenge, and it’ll take a whole lot of other farms and people like Mike to connect everyone. But I think it’s possible. 

“We are super, super fortunate here,” he says. “We just have to figure out how to keep it. I think we’re on the right track.”

This article first appeared in the Colorado Springs Business Journal.

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