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Generational Dream Defines Colorado’s James Ranch

Cynthia James Stewart and Robert Stewart cooking up a hamburger and some chili in their Harvest Grill.

Cynthia James Stewart and Robert Stewart cooking up a hamburger and some chili in their Harvest Grill. Credit: Credit: Rick Scibelli.

Almost 40 years ago, Kay and David James started their search in the West for the perfect piece of land on which to ranch and raise children. The couple was young and in love, and knew what they wanted: clean air, a large spread that would accommodate cattle, and plenty of water. Their search ended on 450 acres in the mountains of Durango, Colo.

Although there’s been a chronic drought throughout the Southwest, there’s plenty of water in the ditch that runs through the middle of this sublime land.

Through the 1970s, the James’ raised five children on grass-finished meats, high ideals and the concept of stewarding the land. When these kids graduated from high school, Kay and Dave pushed them out of the nest into the world of higher education and self-sufficiency. They were told if they wanted to return to the ranch in the future, they should bring back something that would add to the already flourishing ranch. And while the mainstay of the ranch continues to be the beef, all the kids have finally come home. And they’ve come home with their talent.

Julie James and her husband, John Ott, raise free-range chickens for eggs, and blue spruce trees. Jennifer and her husband, Joe Wheeling, raise fresh produce, flowers and herbs. Dan James and his wife, Becca, raise pigs and Jersey milk cows for raw milk and artisan cheese. The James food is available at the Durango Farmers Market and also at their own truly exceptional roadside farm market just above where they all live in the Animas Valley.

A second generation returns to the land at James Ranch

Two years ago, Cynthia James Stewart — the third child and last to come home — pulled all the blessings of the ranch together by creating a roadside grill that serves the ranches’ own hamburgers, cheese and bratwurst, thus making the ranch a real destination for dining.

Unlike the rest of the gang, when Cynthia returned to the ranch, she had no plan. She and her husband Robert were not “rancher-type” people. Her siblings suggested she raise meat birds. She just shook her head. But while she and Robert waited for their epiphany, they worked the farm market.

In her former life, Cynthia had been trained at the Fashion Institute in New York City, and then she’d worked for Ralph Lauren. After that she worked for an environmental company that specialized in water filtration equipment.

“Folks laughed when I told them soon they’d be spending more on bottled water than gas,” she said.

When she met Robert 11 years ago, he was in the mortgage industry. They’d both reached a point in their careers where they were ready for something new around which they could build a family. Soon after they began thinking about adoption, Cynthia knew she had to get back to the ranch.

At the bottom of the ranch property in the old hay barn was a wreck of a trailer that Cynthia’s brother Dan kept saying the family had to get rid of. Cynthia asked her youngest brother, Justin James, who was in the restaurant business, how much he thought it would take to put a basic grill and griddle into the cart. She imagined “people sitting around eating all our food, looking out on all of this beauty — the mountains, the cows, the chickens, you know …”

The trailer had to be completely gutted, which estimates showed would cost about $5,000. In the end, the final cost, which included obtaining many permits and putting in a Bob’s John, was nearer to $18,000.

“Before I married Robert I didn’t cook. At 35 years old, I started,” Cynthia said. “I fell in love with how my family were scientifically rediscovering nature’s harmony of food production. I was amazed at how my dad moved the cows each day, how he’d figured out how much grass each one needed.

“My brother Dan’s milk cows only ate grass and what an effort to make sure they get enough food for milk production. He doesn’t supplement with grain. And how much Jennifer has to go through with her vegetables because we’re at high altitude.

“And the huge amount of work Julie has with her chickens and their eggs. She has 450 now! It’s a lot of work.”

The Harvest Grill and Greens

Cynthia and Robert and The Harvest Grill and Greens are now part of the James Ranch circle. Most all of the ingredients are sourced from the James Ranch, including the meat, cheese, tomatoes, all the salad material, and the currant sauce. The blue chips come from the local “chip peddler,” and the bread from local bakeries. All the recipes are Cynthia’s, and she’s not giving away the recipe for her “signature sauce” for the burger.

Harvest Grill and Green

The Harvest Grill and Green. Credit: Andrew Lipton

During summer, the grill has two cooks, one of whom is Robert. In winter, the grill is open only on Saturdays when Cynthia makes chili, stew, sloppy Joes, and other fun food.

“By the end of September, I’ll have a basement full of my sister Jennifer’s squash. I’ll use her squash and pumpkins through March in soups and stews. I take all her Roma tomatoes, put them in olive oil, roast them and then freeze them. Robert is always reminding me how expensive my ingredients are. We have Annie’s ketchup and organic Dijon mustard … probably why we got voted best burger. We use real food, organic, no non-sweetened, no corn syrup, everything the way nature wanted it to be.”

The Harvest Grill and Greens puts all the James Ranch pieces of the food puzzle together. In July, they fed between 120 to 160 meals a day. June and August were also fabulous. “All of us at the James Ranch want people to come to their food source and delight in it. The stars of our show are the remarkable cheese, our grass-finished cows and our organic vegetables. Those things and my recipes using all this great food, ties us together.”

So far, the James Ranch has two generations working their food. Grady James, who is 14, is teaching his first cooking class this fall. The third generation is coming up fast.

Photo: Cynthia James Stewart and Robert Stewart cooking up a hamburger and some chili in their Harvest Grill. Credit: Rick Scibelli

Zester Daily contributor Katherine Leiner has published many award-winning books for children and young adults and, more recently, her first novel for adults, "Digging Out" (Penguin). Her most recent book, "Growing Roots: The New Sustainable Generation of Farmers, Cooks and Food Activists," won half a dozen awards, including the National Indie Excellence Gold Medal Award. Leiner's next novel is due out this year.

  • Betsy Hays Gatti 10·24·12

    Once again, thanks Katherine for an enlightening view into this family-owned farm and (now) roadside restaurant in CO. Makes me want to “go West, old woman”!

  • Lynn E 10·24·12

    Oh, yum! Makes me want to be there now. I love how the whole family is involved.

  • Mary Ellen Long 10·25·12

    Nice article and to think this food cart is parked with one of the best views in CO. And in my territory.

  • katherine leiner 10·25·12

    Thanks to you both. I really appreciate your voices!

  • nancy kramer 10·25·12

    This is such an idyllic story about family, farm, and food. It seems to be a rare American example of two generations of love. Thanks for discovering it!

  • christina 10·27·12

    always reaching out and drilling down to the Roots of where good natural food comes from and those that make the difference. Always written with great aplomb; i await more from the informative a gifted writer

  • enter name 11·1·12

    kather– I love this story–I have lived it in the berkshires, but not to this beautiful completion. Shouldn’t it be a film?
    thank you for your loving work.!

  • katherine leiner 11·2·12

    Thanks to all of you who have taken the time to read and comment on this piece. It makes it so worthwhile to know that there is an audience out there for this good food, and for those of us who shout the names of the farmers from the mountain tops!

    Let’s all say a prayer for those farmers in the northeast who have had such a hard time over the last week. The clean-up will be massive. In honor of them, wherever we are let’s get out to our farmers markets this weekend!!!