The tractor is experiencing a moment of stubbornness. It’s Alex Seidel’s day to shear the grass, which sweeps across the 10- acre swath of fertile farmland he owns in Larkspur. Without a cooperative tractor, he’ll have to wait. Moments turn into minutes. Five, 10, 15. Tick-tock. “It takes a lot of muscle to crank this thing over,” Seidel mumbles, beads of sweat percolating on his forehead. The belt on the beast has slipped off; putting it back on takes three bodies and about 600 pounds of manly hand power. At around the 20-minute mark, there are sighs of relief. Progress. Seidel squints toward the hills in the distance. The scorching sun is brutal, and the morning is still young. The day is just beginning for the chef-owner of Fruition, Mercantile Dining & Provision and Fruition Farms and Creamery.
It was fall, 2009, when Seidel secured a home loan to purchase the farm. “There really wasn’t much here except for a dilapidated house, an old barn, weeds and another metal tractor barn with a dirt floor,” recalls the chef, who enlisted the staff of Fruition, his season-intensive American restaurant in the Country Club neighborhood, to spruce up the grounds. “The first thing we did was have a ‘paint the farm day’ to make the structures look a little more presentable,” he adds, noting that he and his cohorts brushed the barn with strokes of desert-red paint striped with white frames.
Not long after that paint-a-thon, Seidel teamed up with Josh Halder, founder of Verde Farms, to grow microgreens—young, nutrient-packed seedlings that produce fragile confetti that add texture, pronounced flavors and pops of vibrant color to salads, soups, sandwiches, pizza and appetizers. For four years, microgreens were the primary produce of Fruition Farms, but Seidel, who envisioned a landscape that provided sustainability, realized that while the plants are lovely to behold—and eat—sustainability isn’t their virtue. “They took way too many hours to seed, harvest and water,” he admits, adding that he was providing the moisture for the microgreens not through irrigation—but a hand-held hose. “It’s tough to germinate seeds during the winter season, and it was costing us $3,000 a month in propane just to heat the greenhouse in order to grow the seeds.”
In 2012, on Labor Day, Seidel and his staff staged an intervention: They removed all of the microgreens, plus the metal racks where they rested, and started over, erecting concrete cinderblocks, building beds of organic soil to grow produce and introducing thermal energy, which would allow the farm to produce vegetation—everything from tomatoes and arugula to edible flowers and strawberries—365 days a year.
In the years between the implementation— and removal—of the microgreens, Seidel purchased 40 ewes from the Irish Cream Sheep Dairy, in Bushnell, Nebraska, making Fruition Farms the first artisanal sheep dairy and creamery in Colorado. The decision to bring sheep onto the farm resulted from a light bulb moment, says Jimmy Warren, the former sous-chef of Fruition and Seidel’s business partner since the inception of the farm.
“As chefs, Alex and I served beautiful lamb dishes at Fruition, but we were finishing off some of the dishes with goat’s milk cheese, which seemed counterproductive given that Colorado is the land of lamb. And, yet, there were zero sheep’s milk creameries in Colorado,” says Warren, who became the dairy’s lamb guardian and cheesemaker.
But while Warren and Seidel were determined to raise sheep and produce cheese, they were, by their own admission, rather uninitiated when it came to cheesemaking and animal husbandry, defined as the agricultural practice of breeding and raising livestock. To learn more about the branch of animal science, which includes breeding, caring for newborn animals, ensuring a nutritious diet and preparing animals for slaughter, they became pupils, attending the Dairy Sheep of North America’s symposium in Hudson Valley, New York. It was November of 2009, six months after Seidel purchased his farm.
They sat through numerous lectures that ranged from the challenges of cheesemaking to the basics of milking dairy sheep, and they soon realized, Warren says, that they didn’t have “a freaking clue.” In fact, Warren confesses that up until that trip, he’d never even encountered a sheep. “Seriously, I’d never been in the vicinity of sheep prior to the symposium,” he says.
For his part, Seidel, somewhat bashfully, concedes that he was pretty much in the same boat. “I was a chef with zero background in farming, animal husbandry or cheesemaking, but I was—and am—completely invested in this farm,” he says. “And while I’ve taken risks, sacrificed a lot and complicated my world along the way, food integrity is extremely important to me, and I wanted to open my eyes to the opportunities of using my voice as a chef to promote food advocacy.”
The big cheese
When Seidel and Warren returned to Denver from the symposium, they were certainly a bit wiser. They had a game plan. And they came away, too, Warren adds, with this nugget of knowledge: “We learned that the quality of sheep’s milk was far superior to cow’s milk and goat’s milk.”
Sheep’s milk, in comparison to milk from a cow or goat, is the richest and creamiest of the three, produces the most protein and is higher in vitamins and minerals. Sheep’s milk also contains double the amount of butterfat, and because its fat globules are the smallest of the three, they’re more homogenous and easily digested. In other words, if you’re making cheese, sheep’s milk is the cream of the crop.
Less than a year after they attended the symposium, they received their first flock of milking ewes. Warren began making cheese three days later. The first, a whole sheep’s milk ricotta, generated a first place finish at the 2011 American Cheese Society Conference and Competition in Montreal, Canada. Denver restaurants went wild for its luscious richness. “It’s just so sexy,” sighs Warren, who says he “coaxes the cheese into producing itself ” by bringing it to a low temperature, adding just enough citric acid to seed the curd and allowing the milk to rest for an hour and a half. The result is a superb cheese that’s a little bit nutty, beautifully sweet and impossibly creamy. Warren pulls the curds gently out of the vat, one large slotted spoonful at a time, and slips the curds into plastic containers. At any given time, he produces 150 pounds of ricotta, using 350 pounds of sheep’s milk. Not long ago, while I was at the farm, I had a go at it. “You’re a little slow with the spoon,” Warren teased me, but by the time I’d filled a good 25 or 30 containers, I felt a sense of accomplishment.
Warren, who does his work methodically in a dim-lit, pristinely clean cheesemaking room, prides himself most on the relationships he’s cultivated with Seidel and his restaurants. “It’s symbiotic,” he says. “I get to educate the staffs at Fruition and Mercantile about making cheese—they help me produce and pull product and wash the wheels in our cheese cave—and, in return, the farm supplies the cheese and produce to Alex’s restaurants.”
Along with the ricotta, Fruition Farms produces Cacio Percora, a semi-firm, raw sheep’s milk farmstead cheese that’s pressed into 6-pound wheels and aged a minimum of six months, as well as the superb Shepherd’s Halo, a soft-ripened cheese with a buttery center and a bloomy white rind. In addition, Warren recently began making small-batch sheep’s milk skyr, a smooth, slightly sour, low-fat dairy product that’s technically an Icelandic-style cheese that uses yogurt cultures for flavor and mimics the texture of yogurt.
All of the cheeses made at Fruition Farms have yielded widespread acclaim, but cheesemaking, it turns out, is an expensive endeavor and the financial burden of raising sheep is not the path from rags to riches. At one point, Seidel’s farm housed 125 sheep; space-wise, they were maxed out. There was a physical toll, too.
“We were milking the sheep twice a day, every day,” recalls Seidel, noting, too, that the paltry 20 percent yield wasn’t enough to keep up with supply and demand. “In 2015, we produced 45,000 pounds of milk for distribution across Colorado, as well as a few select restaurants around the country, and we did $80,000 in cheese sales,” he reveals. When you hear that number, it doesn’t sound like a bad haul, but factor in $40,000 just for feed, plus salaries, pay roll, veterinarian supplies, electricity, labels, packaging—and dozens of other expenses— and it became clear to Seidel that he needed to make adjustments if he wanted the farm to remain sustainable. “I was losing money every day, but this is something far greater than a monetary goal, and I knew I wanted to continue to strive for the greater good.”
Seidel sold his flock of sheep in March, and therein began the blueprint for Fruition Farms 2.0. “I learned through an awful lot of trials and tribulations that we needed to make changes at the farm in order to keep it sustainable,” he says. While the sheep are now roaming in other pastures, the milk used to produce the cheeses continues to come from Irish Cream Sheep Dairy, and, this year, Fruition Farms is on track to utilize more than 110,000 pounds of the dairy’s raw, fluid milk for cheese production, thly more consistently good cheese.”ereby doubling last year’s cheese yield. The goal, according to Seidel, is to “scale the farm operation and make more cheese, specifical
The cheeses, which are available for sale in the market at Mercantile, the elevated American restaurant that Seidel unleashed inside Union Station in the fall of 2014, are a talking point at the restaurant. “The concept of Mercantile was always to be a restaurant and a market, and the purpose of the market was to share our relationships and stories with our diners—to talk about our ingredients and why we have them,” says Seidel, adding that the “idea is to share more than just a plate of food. …We can share a more intimate experience, because we’re doing it so close to home. We’re unique insomuch that that when you shop at the market and eat in the restaurant, you’re up close and personal with a place that grows and produces its own food. It’s all very transparent.”
Fruition Farms 2.0, meanwhile, also is continuing its dedication to growing vegetables and herbs. Horticulturist Ilse Anderson, who oversees the farm’s hoop house and greenhouse, joined the farming crew in 2014 to “specifically change the ingredients we were growing and how we were growing them,” Seidel says. Anderson, he continues, has “brought legitimacy to the farm,” turning over more soil in the two years she’s been there than in the first six years of the farm. Anderson has created strategic partnerships, as well, teaming up with Golden Moon Distillery, located in Golden, for example, to grow the distillery’s wormwood and lemon balm, both of which are ingredients that Golden Moon proprietor Stephen Gould uses in his hand-crafted herbal liquors.
In addition, Anderson is working on integrating an irrigation system that will increase growth productivity on the farm; more hoop houses are on the horizon, to keep up with the insatiable desire on the part of chefs to source herbs and vegetables from Fruition Farms.
And that’s not all Seidel has in store: He’s currently in the market to procure a flock of a half-dozen or so sheep, but they won’t be used for milking. Instead, Seidel intends to pasture-raise meat breeds. “We’re researching breeds right now,” he says, “but it takes money and doesn’t happen overnight. But it will happen.” Seidel also raises Heritagebreed pigs, a mission that began several years ago with Cochon555, an environmentally conscious nose-to-tail pig competition that involves chefs from across the country traveling from city to city to cook Heritagebreed pigs from family-owned farms. “A lot of good has come out of Cochon,” says Seidel, who competed in—and won—the event in 2011 (Matt Vawter, his chef de cuisine at Mercantile, won it in 2015).
When Seidel competed, he broke down— and served—a pig sourced from a farm in Iowa, and then figured he may as well get a few pigs of his own. He bought a couple of Berkshire pigs from a farmer just down the dirt road from Fruition Farms and then set his sights on the Large Black breed of pigs, native to Great Britain—and one of the closest breeds to the noble black Ibérico pig. Seidel traded three of his sheep for three of the Large Black pigs, and then he got himself a boar from a pig farmer in Brush. Breeding commenced. “We raise pigs to understand their diet and genetics, to learn about what it takes to raise good quality meat and to understand how we can best utilize the whole animal,” says Seidel, adding that the flesh from his gentle-tempered pigs is “very dark and red in color, has great flavor and the perfect muscle-to-fat ratio.” Over time, he adds, he’ll supply Mercantile with one pig each week.
Ultimately, Seidel says, the relationship between Fruition Farms, Mercantile and Fruition is rooted in “promoting a healthier food system, fostering awareness and educating our community about ethical choices, creating ongoing conversations about agriculture and farming and finding ways to work with big agriculture to advocate a better system overall.” And for Seidel personally, it’s about finding an elevated purpose.
“I want to create something that’s far more powerful than a plate of food.” A restaurant, he notes, is a business. “I feed you, and you pay me,” he says, “but while restaurants are my livelihood, my desire is to evolve and generate a better understanding of where I am individually in all of this. I want to be a part of something greater and something that has more meaning, and that’s what Fruition Farms 2.0 is all about.”
14347 E Cherry Creek Road, Larkspur