Is a cowboy without a ranch still a cowboy? It’s a question third-generation Pagosa Springs rancher Tai Jacober had to ask himself when his grandfather died and the ranchlands his grandpa and Jacober’s father had owned—and Jacober had worked on—were split between surviving family members. The transaction left the then 12-year-old landless. “You can’t buy ag land in Colorado,” says Jacober, who is now 36, explaining that it’s just too expensive. Between second-home owners inflating real estate prices in mountain resort communities and high commodity prices driving up values on the Eastern Plains, many would-be cowboys abandon their ranching dreams for tool belts and construction jobs.

So, Jacober and his brothers looked to redefine the notion of “ranch.” Instead of owning one single, massive spread, the Jacobers Carbondale-based Crystal River Meats leases land from ranchers who don’t want the work or expense of running an agricultural operation—but who do like bucolic ranch scenery and the accompanying tax credits (ag status reaps big savings for landowners). “They’re excited to become part of the network,” says Jacober, who enjoys lower expenses via leases. Jacober doesn’t pay a mortgage, and the landowner occasionally kicks in handling maintenance and upkeep.

The multimillion-dollar operation grew by 300 percent each of the past two years.

It’s not that leasing is revolutionary—most ranchers rent a little of their land these days—but no one in Colorado has succeeded using this business model on Crystal River’s scale. The multimillion-dollar operation grew by 300 percent each of the past two years. In the next six years, Jacober expects to be raising 10,000 head of grass-fed cattle on about 250,000 acres of borrowed property. Ironically, the growth has forced the Jacober siblings to buy some land: a 4,500-acre hay farm in the San Luis Valley.

Crystal River is a hit with Whole Foods and Vitamin Cottage buyers who value locally produced, grass-finished organic meat. At Whole Foods, the steaks tend to sell out before the next week’s shipment arrives. But the company’s value is greater than its product. The arrangement preserves both open space—which Western Slope tourists frequently rank as a top reason for visiting—and culture. “One of our missions is to become a model for ski towns in Colorado,” Jacober says. “There’s a cultural benefit to having a viable ag operation that preserves the rural look—and the cowboys that come with that.”