Starting this fall, lamb and beef from Ignacio-based Fox Fire Farms will become a rarity in Southwest Colorado as the company works out the final stages of a contract to sell almost all its meat to Whole Foods Market.
The deal with the natural and organic grocery store chain will allow the farm to finally turn a profit on its meat, which is grass-fed and organic, said Brent Walter, Fox Fires sales and marketing director.
We all worked really hard these last couple years to make the farm profitable with lots of different private enterprises, but we didnt anticipate the huge costs in direct marketing, freezers, vehicles and labor, Walter said. We struggled to stay above water, and when all was said and done, we only broke even.
The Whole Foods contract will allow the company to give up the job of processing, storing and selling its meat directly, saving time and money, Walter said. He will get to focus his energy on the fun stuff planning events and organizing wine tastings and the farm will save money on electricity, processing costs and labor. Accepting, filling and delivering meat orders took one full-time employee, one intern and a few delivery people, he said. With the change, Fox Fire has downsized from seven employees to four.
The 1,100-acre farm southeast of Ignacio is owned by Richard and Linda Parry and is one of the largest certified organic farms in Colorado, Walter said. The Parrys started the farm in 1913, and now it processes 16,000 pounds of beef and 52,000 pounds of lamb annually. Walter, his wife, Bronwen, his brother-in-law Evan Parry and seasonal worker Gilberto Tobias are the farms only employees.
Currently, Fox Fire has verbal confirmation from Whole Foods that the grocer will buy the vast majority of the farms meat, Walter said, though he is still waiting for a signed contract. Fox Fire will save a small portion for catering events and farm dinners.
According to the proposed arrangement, Whole Foods will come to Fox Fire every fall, pick up the live animals and take them to its own processing facilities. The meat will be sold fresh and, for now, will be limited to stores in the Rocky Mountain region.
If the Whole Foods contract falls through, U.S. Wellness Meats, an online retailer that sells grass-fed meat, also is interested in Fox Fires meat, Walter said. Wellness Meats will likely work out a similar arrangement, he said.
The decision to sell to large grocers will hurt local customers the most, but Walter said he hoped Fox Fires departure from the local market will help create room for smaller producers to grow.
With us gone, it allows other farmers to step up to the plate and fill the void and put more money in their pockets, he said.
At the Durango Farmers Market, several other vendors sell beef, but none of them sell lamb, said market Manager Steve Van Buskirk.
Meanwhile, local restaurants that served the Ignacio farms meat have had to search for new suppliers.
Its an unfortunate situation for restaurateurs who have supported the local business for so long but also an understandable business decision on Fox Fires part, said Alison Dance, owner of Cyprus Cafe, which features Fox Fires ground lamb and lamb tenderloin on its menu. The cafe has found ground lamb from another ranch but has yet to find a replacement for the tenderloin, Dance said.
Seasons Rotisserie & Grill co-owner Karen Barger said the restaurant is talking with family ranches in the area to find locally produced lamb. Shes happy for Fox Fire, she said.
Its great that somebody who works so hard locally to get that kind of success, Barger said.
As they move in a different direction with their meats, Fox Fire also is working to increase production and distribution of its wines, finish construction on a new winery and tasting room and start work on a 5,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style villa for special events. Fox Fire will continue to sell its eggs at the Durango Natural Foods co-op.
Diversifying its offerings will help increase the stability of the farm, Walter said.
One of the biggest things for farms is that the first step to sustainability is profitability, he said. Thats the whole purpose in changing gears.