Raising and selling top-quality meats puts bread on Mike Callicrate’s table. But activism feeds his soul.
The owner of Ranch Foods Direct has been a passionate advocate for family farmers and small businesses in the courts and on Capitol Hill for almost 20 years.
“I fight abusive power,” said Callicrate, who lobbies, speaks and writes about the effects of corporate agriculture and industrial meat packers on small businesses.
“We have a totally broken food system that’s in the hands of just a few companies that cooperate rather than compete,” he said. “People who are really more aware of what’s going on in our system seek out places like us.”
Callicrate sells meat from the cattle, pigs and chickens he raises in St. Francis, Kan. Ranch Foods Direct also stocks locally grown produce, dishes such as soups cooked in the on-site kitchen and prepared foods sourced from regional farmers and food artisans. It’s a bit like a year-round farmers market.
The next six weeks are his busiest time, Callicrate said. He’s stocking Thanksgiving turkeys and ham, as well as prime rib, fillet and other choice cuts for holiday meals.
“We produce the hams ourselves,” he said. “We raise our own pigs and smoke our hams right here in our kitchen. We’re getting ahead of that now.”
Callicrate hasn’t been able to find a local source for Thanksgiving turkeys — “there’s no place to slaughter them,” he said. “The very best poultry grower I know of anywhere is Gunthorp Farms in Indiana. We get our pasture-raised birds from there.”
The store also supplies local restaurants and food markets, including Drifter’s, Susie’s Westside Café and Mountain Mama Natural Foods.
Callicrate grew up in Evergreen, one of eight children in a family where everyone had to work. At 13, he started carrying packages and working behind the meat counter at the Thrifty Food Market. But what he really wanted to do was ride bulls.
“I made the ropes bull riders hang onto, and I was making a good living right out of high school,” he said.
After two years of college and rodeo riding at Sam Houston State in Huntsville, Texas, he joined the rodeo team at Lamar Community College. A professor there introduced him to agriculture and animal science, and he met the woman who became his wife.
He decided to complete his education at Colorado State University and then moved to St. Francis, where his wife’s family farmed and ranched.
Callicrate built a feedlot and, several years later changed his operation from an industrial approach to the regenerative methods he espouses today.
Regenerative agriculture precludes the use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers and focuses on improving and revitalizing soil. Animals are raised humanely, without the use of hormones or antibiotics, and slaughtered on-site. Nothing is wasted; some of the animal bones are used to make bone broth and soup stocks. Compost is produced from manure and the charred bones of slaughtered animals and turned back into the soil.
Callicrate started out selling meats wholesale. In 1996, after taking the lead in an antitrust lawsuit that aimed to end price fixing by large, monopolistic meat packers, “I was blackballed,” he said. “They wouldn’t buy from me.”
So he decided to sell his beef directly to customers through a retail store in Colorado Springs, where his animals were processed.
“We hauled them to G&C Packing Co. on the Westside,” he said.
Ranch Foods Direct opened in 2003 in a warehouse on El Paso Street. He supplied dining rooms from the now-closed Conway’s Red Top to the El Paso Club, as well as several school districts.
Callicrate moved the store to its present location three years ago after he lost his lease at the El Paso location. He also bought a large warehouse at Wooten Road and Platte Avenue where the carcasses are processed.
“The wholesale market is still terribly predatory,” he said. “Retail has kept us going. When I develop a relationship with a customer, they aren’t going anywhere. When you look at the way we produce beef and hogs, the prices are a bit higher, but our meat is so much better.”
The business also is supported by sales of the Callicrate bander, a humane, bloodless castration tool that Callicrate invented and sells through a company called No Bull Enterprises.
“It provides us the capital to invest in Ranch Foods Direct,” he said.
But Callicrate would prefer to talk about the small farmers and ranchers who are struggling in this agribusiness era.
“We’re walking more ranchers off their land every day,” he said. “Most of them don’t have a clue what happened. I try to represent and speak for them.”