The world according to Mel Coleman could be summed up in a few simple words. Do what's right, because it's the right thing to do.
That philosophy turned out to be what was right for the land.
In an interview shortly before his death, Coleman explained what his ranch meant to him. "To anybody that's born on a ranch, land is the most important thing to him, next to his wife and his children, of course. We're never obsessed with buildings or corrals or barns or houses; all ranch men are obsessed with the land."
The Coleman family ranch is 250,000 acres of public and private land on high mountain desert, pine forests and mountain meadows nestled between the Sangre de Cristo mountains and the San Juan Range in southwest Colorado, near the hardscrabble town of Saguache. Over it looms Cochetope Pass, 3,000 feet above the San Luis Valley floor. All the land deeded on the Coleman Ranch today was homesteaded by pioneers, when a $10 filing fee bought land and a new life.
"Some of them even died, but they had the nerve to come here and try to make a living with a scant 160 acres and livestock," Coleman said.
Great-grandson of some of those original pioneers, Glenn Melvin Coleman was a man of the land. And as surely as the Stetson that always rested high on his forehead, his regard for the land was at the root of every turn in his life. But he could also see what might be, said long-time friend, Indiana farmer Will Erwin. Erwin first met Coleman in 1954 at a sheep camp in the high pastures of Coleman Ranch. Erwin was searching for a suitable ranching representative for Eisenhower's presidential campaign.
"We arrived at the sheep camp, and there was this group of young cowboys with weather-beaten faces, a group of ladies in chaps and the biggest coffee pot I have ever seen bubbling over a campfire. It was right out of the movies," Erwin said.
He felt Coleman's appraising gaze as he explained what he wanted. He got no reply, but rather than giving up, he joined the group for a ride to the cow camp.
"Once I showed that I had the ability to get on a horse and felt comfortable there, I felt some of the stiffness go out of Mel Coleman," Erwin said. It took additional prodding from Mel's wife, Polly, but eventually, Mel joined the Eisenhower campaign.
Classic Mel Coleman, Erwin said. Quiet, pragmatic, but always thinking.
Doing Differently, Doing Well
Pragmatism and entrepreneurship are a Coleman family trait. Mel Woodard, Coleman's maternal grandfather, homesteaded along Saguache Creek and sold cattle to miners in Leadville and Aspen.
"Those towns were 100 miles away over rough trails, so he hired teen-age herders to help him drive 20 cattle at a time," Coleman said. "He'd hold the cattle on grass near the camps, then butcher them out one or two at a time and sell beef to miners. Each round-trip took six weeks. But 20 carcasses at boomtown price netted him more than $1,000—a lot of money for a young Saguache cowboy back in those days."
The Coleman ability to see change and adapt to it has guided the ranch through drought, the Depression and drastic economic and political changes.
By the 1960s, after a century of cattle production, the San Luis Valley and the Coleman ranch lands were overgrazed. "I, my father, grandfather and great-grandfather overgrazed the range because we didn't know any better," said Coleman in a family history, Riding the Higher Range: The Story of Colorado's Coleman Ranch and Coleman Natural Beef, by Stephen M. Voynick (Johnson Printing, 1998). When government land managers proposed a new system of dividing land into separate pastures and rotating cattle between them, Coleman's father, LeRoy, and his five sons were the first to try it.
"We used fences and natural barriers such as cliffs to divide the range into individual pastures, with water in each," Coleman said. "At first we ran too many cattle, so we reduced the numbers. Then after five years, we saw definite improvement in quality, density and vigor of the grass."
The experiment taught Coleman two things: range land needed a complete rest for part of the growing season, and cattle were a necessary part of the equation.
"Some people say we shouldn't raise cattle here at all, that we should plant grain instead," Coleman said in the history. "But the truth is, you can't farm this land. The pioneers tried to raise grain here and failed because there is not enough water, and the growing season is too short. What grows here is grass, and you see it all around you. Native hay is the only significant farm crop. But whether it's grass or hay, only one thing can make use of it—and that's cattle."
But improvements to range management did little to slow the uphill battle ranching had become. In the 1970s, the changing economics of American agriculture coupled with wildly fluctuating cattle prices and shifts in consumer tastes left ranchers trapped with large herds when prices were low, and small herds as demand and prices increased.
"Out of a 10-year cycle, we usually had three good years and seven bad ones," Coleman recalled. At the same time, the health food movement was emerging and consumers were reconsidering red meat. Quality was also an issue as Congress and the beef industry debated the use of diethylstilbestrol, a synthetic hormone, for increased production.
Coleman took what he felt was the right road, rather than the easy road.
"DES was used in beef production, in cattle and sheep and hogs and chickens too, for the sake of increased production," he said. "I've always thought it was wrong to use medicines for the sake of production, and it's even worse with antibiotics. In the mid-'70s, we found that antibiotics were less and less useful in getting animals well. We were wearing them out, and it wasn't all our fault. When the medical industry started using antibiotics and hormones more and more, they found that they were less and less effective, not just on cattle ranches, but in hospitals, on sheep ranges, in poultry houses and all across the board."
The High, Hard Road
Despite his forward thinking, by the late 1970s, Coleman Ranch faced foreclosure. Drastic measures were needed. The answer? Natural beef.
Coleman gave credit for the idea to his daughter-in-law Nancy. Nancy mentioned she and many of her neighbors in Boulder, Colo., would be interested in buying beef that was raised naturally and wasn't loaded with chemicals.
"Nancy said, 'Why don't you sell what you've got?'" Coleman recalled.
"'What have I got?' I asked.
"'Well, you've got a ranch that's at the [top] of the Continental Divide; you run cattle on each side of that divide; it's at very high altitude; it's 200 miles from the city; and you don't believe in using antibiotics and hormones. Why don't you sell it?'"
And that's just what Mel and Polly did.
"If natural beef could boost our cattle prices and free us from that 10-year cattle price cycle, we thought we might be able to save the ranch," Coleman said. They also knew if they weren't successful, they could lose everything.
But the decision was about more than economics, said Mel Jr., the eldest of the Colemans' three children. "Even though the whole natural beef idea was started out of a need to provide additional income for our family ranch, Dad also knew that if the idea of natural beef worked, it could be a catalyst for the changes he believed needed to take place in agriculture and food production—changes away from the increasing use of chemicals in agriculture, and changes that could improve the future of small family farms and ranches."
The Colemans formed an independent company—Coleman Natural Beef—to buy cattle from the Coleman Ranch. Jim Coleman, Mel's brother, would manage the ranch, and Mel was appointed to run the beef company.
"What we were doing was going back to the way we raised cattle in the 1930s," Coleman said on one of many publicity tours of the ranch.
"After World War II, the availability of new drugs and chemicals coincided with a need to produce huge quantities of cheap food. American agriculture used chemicals to meet the challenge, but it paid a price. We've lowered the quality of our food, degraded our environment and lost many of our traditional values concerning land, rural life and the treatment of animals. The saddest part is we never needed all those chemicals to produce good beef."
The term natural beef holds no sanctioned definition. For Coleman it means that cattle receive no antibiotics, hormones or feed that contains animal products.
Mr. Coleman Goes To L.A.
The new company thrust Coleman into a different way of life. His original plan to develop a small customer base in Colorado Springs, Denver and Boulder proved to be economically premature. His son Greg suggested trying trendy California.
"I remember telling Greg that I didn't have the money to go to L.A." Coleman said. "Greg said, 'Dad, I don't think you have money enough not to.' So I got a cheap plane ticket to L.A. I got a cheap rental car, and I slept in the damn thing."
During his trip, Coleman met Sandy Gooch, owner of a chain of successful natural gourmet food stores in metropolitan Los Angeles. "At the time, we were growing to the extent that our existing natural beef supplier was having a tough time keeping up. And then Mel just dropped out of the sky, with the quality and the cuts that we needed," Gooch said.
The sale jump-started Coleman Natural Beef. Gooch instantly connected Coleman to the burgeoning natural foods industry.
"Shortly after I got home from L.A., I had a call from Peter Roy in New Orleans, John Mackey in Austin, Anthony Harnett in Boston and Joel Thomaselli in Atlanta. These few companies wanted fresh meat to offer to their customers. So then, by striking that ball, I had a national market, when I only wanted one in Colorado Springs."
The connection with Mrs. Gooch's Natural Food also began a friendship between the Coleman family and Sandy Gooch and her husband Harry Lederman. Gooch told the story of an evening she and Harry hosted Mel and Polly for a night out on the town. Their first stop was a Sherman Oaks sushi bar.
"Here was this tall, lanky cowboy with this look of concern, maybe even fear, on his face," Gooch said. "He did try the sushi, but I don't know if he ever had sushi again."
The story speaks volumes about Coleman, who never complained, Gooch said. "He comes from an era when one's word was one's bond." She knows it firsthand: Coleman honored her original contract for exclusive rights to sell Coleman beef in Los Angeles despite better offers. "As he got bigger, many stores here wanted Coleman beef and could have given him much more volume than we did. I know he could have used the money, but he always said no," Gooch said.
A Rancher And A Philosopher
In the end, convincing retailers to buy his beef turned out to be the easy part. USDA officials were another matter. When Coleman first labeled a carcass "Coleman Natural Beef," he didn't know he was actually breaking the law.
He wanted a label that not only addressed how the meat was processed, but how the animal was raised. He started by convincing the USDA that some cattle were natural. "They all said, 'Cattle are natural, Mel. Why are you doing this?' " It took two years and several trips to Washington before he finally had approval for a natural beef label.
The proposition of a natural beef label wasn't met with cheers in the Saguache ranching community—or anywhere else. Coleman correctly anticipated his natural beef would prompt inevitable comparisons to regular beef.
Coleman tended not to talk much about that period, or he brushed it off with a joke about prank phone calls asking for "Ewell Gibbons," but Erwin recalls the situation was serious. "Those ranchers gave him more than just a ribbing," he said. "It was downright hostile."
The controversy grew with the expanding market for Coleman Natural Beef in the 1980s and 1990s. Not content with the label, he even testified before Congress to formulate an organic label in 1990. Fueled by politics and international trade issues, the label issue was a source of frustration and occasional anger for Coleman. But he always acted honorably.
"I can't recall a time when Dad ever made a negative or derogatory remark about another company," Mel Jr. said. "He seemed to be able to maintain a positive attitude and stay focused on the bigger picture. Something he would say to customers and employees alike sums it all up. 'Fight 'em fair.'"
That Mel Coleman moved between the quietly harsh atmosphere of ranch life to the worlds of politics and big business with great composure seemed almost accidental. But in truth, it was by design. Erwin said, "I don't think he always realized what a philosophical strategist he was; it was just natural to him."
Just like doing the right thing.
Karen Raterman is New Hope Natural Media's vice president for content development.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 10/p. 24, 26, 28-29,