From real estate to ranching: One man’s journey through the beef biz

It’s like the plot of a ‘90s comedy: a businessman buys a farm in the middle of nowhere as a real estate investment and unwittingly finds himself transformed into a full-time rancher and beef producer.

But for Jeff Russell, member of WeWork Union Station in Denver, this is real life. Or something close to it.

Russell is the owner of Teton Waters Ranch, a company that produces sausages, meatballs, chili, and jerkies from 100 percent grass-fed beef. Not only was he an early acolyte of the all-natural, hormone-free meat movement, but he is also an environmentalist. And it all started somewhat accidentally.

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Russell was working for a company that invested in real estate when one of their deals involved buying an industrial farm in Eastern Idaho just outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The team realized that some of the land on the potato and dairy farm was not productive, so they decided to reintroduce native grasses to that area, a move that helps with natural water purification and counteracting the effects of climate change. On the advice of a fourth generation rancher named Dusty, they also bought some cattle to graze the area as a natural form of grassland management. The transformation was mind-boggling.

“Once we started planting these grasses, we saw incredible return of the wildlife,” Russell says. “There were small things like rabbits and voles and things that the farmers hadn’t seen there in like 30 years. And they were amazed that these animals were coming back to the land in such a short period of time.”

As some of the budding ranch’s cows reached the end of their time, they were slaughtered and the beef distributed to employees and chefs in the surrounding area. Surprisingly, the chefs started coming to Russell to buy more and more of the grass-fed, quality product. Russell began making sausages, chilis, and other food products with the cuts of meat the chefs didn’t want.

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After buying his partners out, Russell went all-in on the beef biz, although with one slight change: while he and his wife still own the ranch, they realized they were much better at selling meat than raising it, especially given the long, harsh winters of the Northwest.

Now, most of the meat used for Teton Waters Ranch products, like their best-selling jalapeño cheddar brats, is sourced from other ranches, but Russell and Dusty ensure that they only do business with people who maintain the tough standards they originally instituted on their own property—grass-fed, no hormones, no antibiotics, and no feedlots.

Seven years after starting out, they are finally on a roll. In December, Teton Waters Ranch closed another round of funding, which Russell is excited to use for more R&D. (He says they have a list of 85 different foods they’d like to try out, although they are “keep[ing] them under our hat.”) And as the healthier food movement expands, Russell’s business is as well. He has recently started working with bigger brand stores like Costco and Kroger.

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“I think we probably thought we were about a week away from going out of business maybe four or five different times,” Russell says. “It feels like we’re a little further from that now, which is great. It definitely feels like the timing has all kind of caught up with us. The consumers’ awareness and demand for what we do, it all seems to be working out.”

Photos: Joshua Lewin 

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