Josh Kilbane finally is letting some grass grow under his feet. After decades researching sustainable farming all over the Americas, he’s putting down roots and bringing his expertise, in the form of Yampa Valley Farms, to Steamboat Springs.
Raised on a ranch in Montrose, Kilbane spent his childhood watching his father work the land, gaining an insider’s education to sustainable farming. “Understanding natures’ cycles is not something you learn from a textbook,” he maintains.
Later, between stints as a hunting and fishing guide, he worked on various farms, hitchhiking his way across the U.S. and into Canada and Mexico. In 2010, a river restoration project outside Milner brought Kilbane and his wife, Kirsty, to Steamboat. In exchange for an agricultural exemption, he was given permission to experiment with sustainable farming. “Within a year, we’d created incredibly fertile soil, and I had 2,500 chickens, 40 hogs plus highland cow,” he says. As well as grazing on natural grass, his animals are given a meticulously researched blend of mineral rich Icelandic kelp, brewers yeast, probiotics, sea salt, high-quality meat and bone meal mixed at a granary in Craig. “Diet and environment are the fundamental factors behind rearing a disease-free and flavourful product,” he says.
Realizing the demand for locally raised produce, they expanded and moved their operation after an August 2012 meeting with Bob and Laura Hill, owners of 1,300 acres in the Elk River Valley. “I had the concept and knowledge, but not the land,” Kilbane says. Since 1981, the Hills have been accumulating land by the headwaters of Deep Creek, while exploring economically viable options. When Kilbane outlined his vision, they formed a partnership, and Yampa Valley Farms moved into its new home in December.
Unfazed by accessibility issues, cold winters, droughts and predators, Kilbane spent this past winter increasing his breeding stock, driving as much as 10,000 miles per month. (Luckily, his Rhode Island Red Chickens for laying and Freedom Ranger birds arrive via the downtown post office. “Hatching chicks aren’t your every day delivery,” he says.)
Word of mouth and the Yampa Valley Co-op are his primary sources of business, but he’s also gaining a following with local restaurants, working with Creekside Cafe & Grill and Sweet Pea (try its smoked ham hocks and fresh pork sides). “We pride ourselves on using as much local produce as possible,” says Creekside co-owner Kelly Landers, touting its newest offering, the Local Yolk’l: all Yampa Valley-raised produce served with homemade Creekside bread. “Thanks to Yampa Valley Farms, we also now have homemade chorizo on the menu.”
On June 15, local chefs at the Savor Steamboat cook-off used 600 pounds of his pastured heritage pork shoulder. “It was a great chance to show people the quality of our meat,” Kilbane says, adding that keeping prices affordable is paramount. “We’re not catering only to the elite.”
While he’s unable to do all processing in-house because of federal regulations, Kilbane hopes that will change. “Standards are the same whether you’re processing one animal or 700,” he says, adding that this summer a chicken plant will be the farm’s first step into processing. By the end of 2013, he plans to have 200 hogs, 75 cows and 4,000 chickens.
Keeping all these balls in the air — as well as raising daughters Esme, 3, and Sasha, 1 — makes for a busy lifestyle, but it’s one he wouldn’t trade for the world. And the way his food is being embraced, things are likely to only get busier. “One of the biggest challenges is growing fast enough to meet demand,” he says.