Once Mike Preisler had wrestled enough bears, he turned his sights to other adventures.
He spent two years starting fish farms in Zambia. He worked on a ranch north of the Springs. Then he started A Grazing Life — and if you think bear-wrangling is the highlight, you haven’t heard Preisler warmed up about the farm parties.
Officially they’re called farm dinners, “because that’s what people understand — they can kind of picture it,” Preisler says. “But then we do the farm tour on the trailer, and the Big House is a museum tour, and we’ve got yard games and bonfires and live music and cocktails. So it’s a farm dinner but it’s also this huge party event now. It’s snowballed.
“We want people to leave thinking, ‘That was the most Colorado thing anybody could ever have done,’” he said. “More than skiing, more than hiking. The food, the music, the agriculture, the people, the community coming together at the table — that’s what we want people to leave with.”
Preisler launched A Grazing Life’s farm dinners to bridge the gap between the public and local farms, ranches, wineries, breweries and chefs, to promote local foods and sustainable ranching and agriculture.
A Grazing Life’s partnership with Frost Livestock in Fountain puts guests at the heart of “a full-on working ranch — cattle, sheep, vegetables,” Preisler said. “This parcel right here is about 800 acres, and they manage about 20,000 acres that they run cattle on. It’s everything you see in every direction. This place has been in the family for four generations.”
This year Chef Mario Vasquez joins A Grazing Life as its first executive chef, organizing a summer-long lineup of 10 of the Springs’ best.
“There are no rules for the chefs and they love that,” Preisler said. “There’s no budget for them, no restraints — we want them to go crazy. The only parameters they have to work in are that they have to use what’s in season, so they have to develop the menu based on what’s available. They have to be super flexible, they have to be passionate about this mission. The chefs that we work with, they love it.”
Preisler talked with the Business Journal about his long road to the ranch, bouncing back from the pandemic, and yes, the bears.
Tell us about your background and how you came to start A Grazing Life.
My background is wildlife management. I worked for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife service, trapping black bears out in Durango. It’s for research, so you’re trapping them, putting radio collars on them, and then following their movements for population estimates and how black bears live with people in town and stuff like that. It was super fun — and wild, because you’re handling bears every day. And some of them, you think they’re under, you put them down and pull them out and suddenly — they’re not quite under and then there’s some hairy moments. So that was an amazing experience. That brought me to Colorado from Wisconsin. In Wisconsin I was doing a similar thing but with deer. And deer — that’s wild because you don’t put them under, so you’re wrestling them into cages. That was the same sort of thing, for research.
What got me into ranching — I did the Peace Corps, so I went from Durango to the Peace Corps where I was doing aquaculture, fish farming. I was in Zambia for two years and that’s where I got into integrated agriculture and ranching.
With Zambia, fish farming doesn’t spring to mind. What was the goal?
It was essentially to increase revenue sources for rural villages and farmers. The goal is to teach them how to fish farm, using wooden hoes and nothing else. It’s a way to provide a consistent protein source with the fish farms, and a good source of revenue — but on such a small scale that you can’t even imagine. Digging fish ponds by hand, in the mud, in real rural Africa — no water, no electricity, mud huts. Every day you ride your bike around to introduce yourself to people that have never spoken English in their life and try to be like, ‘Hey, do you want to start a fish farm?’ We put together little community workshops and people come around and you’re trying to explain how to fish farm in a tribal language you just learned three months ago. It was really cool.
How did that lead to ranching?
You meet so many Peace Corps volunteers who know so much about very progressive ways of regenerative agriculture, so it’s just like this breeding ground for talking about stuff like that. … I was [in Zambia] a little over two and a half years, then I went back to Durango — back to black bears for a summer, just to get back to the States. I had long hippie hair and the whole nine yards. And the whole time I was looking around for ranches to join and learn how to do it. I never knew how to do it — I knew what it was like Zambia, which is totally different. So that’s what brought me to the Springs area. I got hooked up with a ranch; I was working there and saw a way to build a bridge between the everyday consumers and the farms and ranches. That’s not a new concept in Colorado, but there’s still — how do you make a memorable connection between the ranch and the people that work there, and everyday Joe who doesn’t have the time to find a way to buy meat from these people? That’s where A Grazing Life was born. People just loved it from the start. I have zero restaurant experience, event planning — nothing. But just putting people first, I think, always makes events turn out well. … We get people from every end of the spectrum. We’ll get city folks that have never walked on grass before, and legit cowboys that will come out and they’ll all share a table. There will be people dressed to the nines, there’ll be people in blue jeans, and they’ll all come together and it’s awesome.
How did the pandemic impact A Grazing Life and the work you’re trying to do with the ranch?
We canceled everything for 2020. We felt that was the responsible thing to do, even though we could have done events at some capacity. But for the experience of our guests, and for the sake of our [wedding] couples, we just shut down everything. We refunded all of our wedding couples. Then all the A Grazing Life family, as we call them — the people that come out to the dinners — they all were on board saying, ‘We’ll just come out in 2021 when you’re back,’ and that helped us get by. So we’re beyond grateful to our following that has supported us through the whole thing. Obviously it put a damper on what we’re doing out here and trying to grow. The whole thing is terrible, but the silver lining for us business-wise is that it gave us a year to do nothing but contemplate how to put on the best events on the planet. That’s our mission at the end of the day. So we’ve done nothing but sit around for the past 12 months scheming and tinkering with how to make every aspect better for the guest experience, for us supporting the local farmers. Once we got past the depressing emails and phone calls and got everybody taken care of — then we could start to just plan for this year and pray for a better situation to actually do events in. Matthew Sandoval is our new event manager. He comes from a more luxury ranch in Wyoming where he’s done big events for high-end clients. He joined in the summer of 2020 — so a terrible time to join — but he believed in what we’re trying to do here with A Grazing Life and pretty much just said, ‘I’ll stick around, I know you can’t really pay me but I’m on board to make this thing grow.’ We’re excited to get going. …
Now with Chef Mario Vasquez … he’s on board to elevate what we’re doing out here, keeping it authentic and working with the guest chefs. We’re creating a space where the best chefs in the area are coming out and collaborating and everybody’s making each other better and learning how to use true Colorado ingredients and cuisine. Versus the chef competition culture — that’s not us. We want everybody to have a great time, help each other out, share ideas — and ultimately the guests get the best experience because you’ve got these amazing chefs collaborating and the best of what they do is going to come out at the table.
It’s tricky to look ahead right now, but what are your goals?
We have goals — but who knows what the summer will actually look like. Things are moving in the right direction for the event industry in general, and it’s one of those things where you have to prepare as if you’re going to go full bore — but also be ready for it to come to a crashing halt. So you have to start investing in equipment and the space and staff now, because you can’t do it a week before your first event; you won’t be ready. But then a week before your first event, everything could come to a halt. That’s what puts the industry in such a tough spot. You can’t just sit and twiddle your thumbs and sit on all your money until a day before the event and be like, ‘Okay, we’re actually doing it.’
So our goals for the season, this will be the most guests we’re hoping to have out over the 13 events that we have planned — we do about 100 people per event. Tickets went on sale last week, and we sold 500 in the first day — which is unbelievable. That’s twice what we’ve ever done in our history. We also have about 30 weddings on the books in the summer, and this will be our first summer of even doing weddings. ... The weddings, that was our goal for the summer so we’re doing well there.
Really the goal of the business is to put on the best farm dinner on the planet. We’re not going to stop until we get there. Some people might brush that off — and that’s fine, because it’s kind of hokey. But that’s what we’re going to do here. People will come from all over the world to be at these events some day. We already get people that travel from all over the country to come to events, which is awesome. But we don’t sit idle on anything.