The Gazette: The Durango ranch where nature, family and burgers rule | Colorful Colorado

Dave and Kay James stand among their grass-fed cattle in a field at the James Ranch this month. The couple started the farm in 1961 as newlyweds and recent college grads from Southern California. -photos by Christian Murdock, The Gazette

by: Seth Boster | Jun 30, 2019

DURANGO • Something new grows at the James Ranch.

It’s a building yet to be finished, like the brownies left out for workers hammering away, trying to finish by August after many delays. Please eat the brownies, Dave and Kay James insist, staying sweet and patient. Things like this take time, they know.

They know, having started the ranch almost 60 years ago, each hardly 21 and green as the grass that grows here by the wild and scenic Las Animas River.

“We were just idealistic kids,” Kay says. Kids with the vision of raising a family on open land, this land, these 420 acres off U.S. 550, beheld by the deck that’s been finished in the back of the building.

The mountains roll, and trout-teeming streams weave the pastures where sometimes elk roam with the cows, pigs and chickens. It’s a view that Dave can take in now — hands in the back pockets of his blue jeans, boots firm on the fresh hardwood, cowboy hat blocking the sun — and know that he made it. The family made it, and that’s a story as long and winding as the river.

But here they are, waiting for the building that symbolizes the ranch’s future.

“I look at it as the foundation for future generations,” says Cynthia James Stewart, one of five kids representing the second generation living here, her daughter the third generation.

Says her brother Dan, with three kids of his own: “It’ll be a game changer.”

Says sister Julie James Ott: “It’s gonna open so many doors, to us and our community.”

The building will be the economic center of the James Ranch. In 5,000 square feet, it’ll house the market that Julie started soon after coming home in the 1990s and the restaurant that Cynthia got going eight years ago upon her return.

Legend has spread of the burgers she’s been serving out of a wagon on Thursdays, six months out of the year. For the secret, look no further than the ranch’s proud, all-natural ethic — the grass-fed cattle, the rich cheese handmade by Dan that pairs with other organic toppings.

Across the dining room, Julie will stock the products that have been mainstays of the market: the beef and pork, which son Gunther handles, feeding the pigs with spare whey from Uncle Dan’s cheese-making and throwaway grain and barley from local shops; the jams and jellies from fruits picked in the backyard by Julie’s other kids; the eggs that the Jameses call Golden Yolks, for the rare color the hens produce on ground the family knows as blessed.

But Julie wants to take the market to another level. She’s looking beyond the ranch, scouting growers of the valley and beyond for goods made through a regenerative process. Organic, yes, “but it has to be even better than that,” she says.

So it will be the James Ranch Market, a showcase of environmental farming right here in Durango, attracting already-devoted locals and buyers from all over. And on the other side of the building, the burgers’ fame will grow, with the once-a-week wagon moving to a daily, year-round operation.

“I’m a little nervous,” Dan admits. “Just about how crazy that might get.”

The family patriarch and matriarch have known crazy. That’s what it’s like trying to dig out of debt.

Dave and Kay were strapped to it from the beginning, since Dave’s dad, a successful businessman in California, lent them the money for the land. Dave and Kay graduated college, married in 1961 and moved to their dream home.

Dave became the cowboy in his romanticized mind, moving cattle in the hills on horseback and taking notes from whiskey-toting old-timers. Kay, a flower enthusiast, started her garden.

Then reality set in.

Commercial cattle wasn’t working out; Dave couldn’t afford a big enough herd. So he turned to outfits around the country and overseas, picking up work while Kay stayed at the cobblestone home alone with five kids. On occasion, when the stress became too much, she’d just scream, and the kids knew to leave her alone.

The debt grew, hundreds of thousands of dollars piling up.

“We were down and out, gosh darn it,” Dave says.

So he gave into his dad’s advice. It was time to develop.

In 1978, Dave was approved for the project that would consume 60 acres and the better part of 20 years: the neighborhood he built and brokered to homeowners largely on his own.

“We did what we had to do so we could get back to doing what we wanted to do,” Kay says.

But not even in their young imaginations did they think they would do it alongside their kids. They’d all been away in big cities, pursuing careers. It was when they started their own families that they realized what they’d been missing: home on the ranch.

And they knew if agriculture was going to last here, if home as they knew it was going to survive, they all had to come together.

“When I see my kids walking with fishing rods over their shoulders with their cousins, that’s just stuff you can’t buy,” Dan says.

And like their parents before them, they can grow up and have the ranch to return to. That’s the hope, anyway. The hope is that the market and restaurant spell the financial path forward, however crazy things might get.

But more than anything, the Jameses are putting their trust in nature — a commitment clear by the conservation easements now covering most of the land. Nature has always had a way of rewarding them, they say.

The way one lush pasture regenerates while the cattle feed from another. The way the apples and cherries and apricots and raspberries bloom after a harsh winter. The way the river never floods. The way last summer’s wildfire never reached across the highway, where Dave and Kay stayed put with their animals and tree farm. The way the tree farm is home to big, black birds that ward off birds of prey.

“I maybe lose one or two chickens a year to a hawk,” Julie says. “That’s an example where we didn’t even know it, but nature worked with us.”

Dave points to another example as he drives his truck across the ranch: a cottonwood down beside the road.

“This tree fell the other day,” he says. “Could’ve fell across the road, but nope. Right on the side here. Perfect.”