After graduating from the University of Redlands in Southern California in 1961, newlyweds Dave and Kay James moved to Durango, Colorado, and started James Ranch, which has grown to be a popular destination among foodies.
“Dave’s dad had been raised on a farm in Kansas, so Dave had the genes drawing him into agriculture,” Kay says. “We were looking for a place where we could work in agriculture and raise a large family.”
The couple began raising kids – five to be exact – along with cattle on their ranch in the scenic Animas River Valley, focusing on sustainability and being good stewards of the land. Their hard work and commitment to conservation caused the ranch to grow, thrive and become what it is today – a destination for locals and tourists alike, spanning 400 acres and offering organic, grass-fed beef, freshly made artisan cheeses, eggs, produce, raw milk, pork and even spruce trees. Visitors can eat, shop, take a tour or just pet the goats.
About 30 years ago, they were introduced to the idea of directing their sales efforts toward the consumers themselves. “We’ve found that if you’re in agriculture, it’s best to deal directly with consumers, cutting out the middleman,” Dave says. “We market all our products to the local community. We have our own market and cafe on our ranch, and we’re one of the founders of the Durango Farmers Market.”
James Ranch also sells its organic products to local restaurants and stores.
“Our customers want chemical-free foods, especially in Colorado where so many people are focused on athleticism.”
A Family Tradition
Everything sold at James Ranch is produced on-site with the help of four out of the five James children, now adults with children of their own.
“After our five children finished high school, we encouraged them to go to college or go work somewhere outside Durango,” Kay says. “Once they were married, they realized they wanted to raise their own children the way they were raised, and they began coming back. Four of our children now live on the ranch, and each has their own enterprise.”
That was the deal, Dave says.
“If they wanted to come back, they had to have their own business on the ranch, because our beef cattle alone were not enough to support that many people,” he continues. “Each of them having their own business on the ranch is a strong reason for our success.”
The eldest son, Dan, makes all the ranch’s cheeses with his wife, Becca. The cheeses are made from raw milk from the ranch’s grass-fed Jersey cows, and they are aged to perfection. Six varieties of the cheese, as well as ice cream, can be purchased at James Ranch Market.
Oldest daughter Jenn Wheeling, a self-taught organic farmer, and her husband, Joe, started The Gardens at James Ranch two decades ago, growing a variety of vegetables and flowers. Joe has a degree in Animal Science, so he and Jenn are now partners with Dave and Kay in the beef cattle enterprise.
Daughter Julie James Ott and her husband John run the ranch’s native tree farm and manage the laying hen operation. Julie also manages the James Ranch Market. One of their sons, 27-year-old Gunther, now runs the family’s Whey-Good Pork business, raising pigs in the peaceful pastures of James Ranch.
“Our youngest daughter, Cynthia, was working in the fashion industry in California when she and her husband, Robert, adopted their daughter from Russia,” Dave says. “She looked around at the school system and the crime rate and called me to say, ‘Dad, I want to come home.’”
Dining at James Ranch
Cynthia and Robert were the last of the James children to return to the ranch in 2009, and Cynthia now owns the Harvest Grill at James Ranch.
“She began cooking the food we raised and started making burgers and salads out of our little food wagon eight years ago,” Dave says. “Every year, it got bigger. People really want this pure food.”
The business outgrew the food wagon, and in 2019, the James family built a new brick-and-mortar restaurant with gorgeous views and both indoor and outdoor dining. The Harvest Grill at James Ranch serves food produced at the ranch and uses organic ingredients in everything, from sauces to pickles.
“Part of the reason we were able to afford to build the restaurant is because we’ve placed most of the ranch in a conservation easement,” Dave says. “The conservation easement locks in our land for future generations so that it will never be developed.”
The conservation easement also gave the James family a sizable tax credit that paid for half of the cost of building the new restaurant.
“The restaurant is beautiful, with a deck and grassed terraces with picnic tables,” Kay says. “It was a huge step for us that took about six years of discussion.”
Through the years of growth and change, Kay says James Ranch has always remained committed to raising healthy food for their community and preserving open space.
“We look forward to every day,” she says. “We have challenges like everybody does, but it’s a wonderful privilege to work in harmony with family. We have regular family meetings where we all decide together what we are going to do. It’s very harmonious.”
Dave agrees. “Holistic resource management is very important to us,” he says. “One of the things you should always do is question your quality of life, and we do that. We could sell this land for a lot of money. But we don’t want a lot of money – we want a high quality of life for us and for future generations.”
Want to learn more about James Ranch? The ranch offers guided tours on Mondays and Thursdays. Visitors can take a wagon ride through the pastures, observe the cheese-making process and ask questions about the soil, water, forages and wildlife policies at James Ranch. Reservations are required. For information, call (970) 385-6858 or visit www.jamesranch.net.
If You Go
Location: 33846 US-550, Durango, CO 81301
Phone: (970) 385-6858
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.