Brokaw in farm country on road trip

Broadcaster documenting character of Highway 50

All Jeff Downs really wants to do is quietly run a sustainable farm, raising and selling animals for meat on his Montrose property. But Downs found himself in the media spotlight when a celebrated television personality visited Thursday to feature Kinikin Heights Natural Foods for an upcoming documentary.

Among scampering baby pigs, cattle and horses on his farm with views of the San Juan Mountains and the Uncompahgre Plateau, Downs spent much of the day walking and talking with journalist Tom Brokaw.

“I’m just kind of laughing at it like it’s still a joke,” said 27-year-old Downs by phone Wednesday. “I don’t do well with the attention stuff. I get nervous. I’m just a farmer out here doing my thing.”

Brokaw and a small crew are traveling U.S. Highway 50 compiling a series of stories for a documentary called “American Character Along Highway 50.”

Brokaw will be in Grand Junction today talking with local doctors about Grand Junction’s health-care model. A one-hour documentary is expected to air on USA Network in January to coincide with the anniversary of President Barack Obama’s inauguration. This spring, the network will air monthly updates of Brokaw’s road trip along Highway 50, showing stories collected from Maryland to California, according to a Web site for USA Network.

On Thursday, Brokaw could be heard talking to Downs about his sustainable farming practices.

Word of Brokaw’s visit traveled quickly with local media and members of Montrose’s Visitors & Convention Bureau showing up at the farm for the filming.

“It’s good for his business,” neighbor Bruce Leben said while watching the filming and standing among a small crowd outside of the camera’s view. “This is worth more than any ad you can put in the local media.”

Downs sells his meat by order and at farmers markets in Telluride, Ridgway and Montrose. He produced 1,000 broilers this year and slaughters about 18 to 24 cows a year. His pigs feed off extra skim milk from the dairy next door. They eat scraps from a local brewery and leftovers from the city’s Vitamin Cottage.

His chickens are rotated each day to new area on about half of his 700-acre spread. He calls himself a grass farmer because so much of his operation revolves around grass-fed livestock. However don’t expect Downs to ship any products. Costs and the environmental impacts of transportation go against the philosophy of growing an environmentally friendly farm.

And even if nobody cares about the environmental impacts of farming or the health of the animals, “The meat is a whole lot better tasting,” Downs said.

Downs realizes more people are interested in the slow food movement, thanks to books such as the “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and movies like “Food, Inc.” It was in learning about the ways meat is mass-produced on large factory farms that got Downs interested in returning his family’s farm to a natural operation. Downs graduated with a degree in animal science from Cal Poly University at San Luis Obispo, Calif.

What he learned disgusted him: that chickens were fed arsenic-based additives in their feed to fatten them up, and lights were kept on 24 hours a day so the chickens would eat more. What used to take 12 weeks to raise a chicken in the 1950s was reduced to half that time on modern feedlots, he said.

“I studied animal farming, but I didn’t want to bring any of those practices back to the ranch with me,” Downs said. “We’re keeping something the community can support and providing a healthy product — not treating (the animals) like a number.”


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