Swallow Fork Ranch & Caretaker Trail
I first met Angelo and Karin Theos at a Colorado Wool Growers meeting. Their generous manner and inclusive spirit made me feel instantly at home in a crowd of strangers. The next day I met their son, Anthony, and learned about their family business, Theos Swallow Fork Ranch. Five generations-deep, the ranch is strong and well for one reason: they are visionary caretakers. They care for each other, the land, their herders, and especially their sheep, all with an eye to the future.
In August of 2019, Nicole and I spent the day with Angelo and Anthony on their ranch. There was something sacred about being on that ground. Generations of shepherds toiled to make it what it was, what it is, and what it will be. We were honored to hear just a little of their story
Angelo began by telling us about his Grandad. Coming from Greece to the United States in the late 1800s, his Grandad went to the coal mines in Helper, Utah. Knowing sheep, he worked hard to save, pooled some money with friends, and bought a flock. They moved the animals on the open range, attentively, tirelessly. Slowly but surely, they built up a healthy and profitable sheep business - something tricky to do in the midst of the Sheep & Cattle Wars.
Years went by and the ranch grew. At one point there were 40 families on 3 ranches. The Homestead Act had allowed for people to claim land and “prove up.” As family members decided their futures were elsewhere, the Theos family bought their land. Over time the ranch expanded to 15,000 acres.
In the 1950’s Angelo’s dad and uncles took over operations. A couple of decades later, Angelo returned home from college with a vision to make some changes.
In 1975, Merino sheep were introduced onto the Theos Swallow Fork Ranch. Angelo had been taught that when it came to raising sheep you had a choice: lambs or fleece. You can’t have both. Thirty years of intention, dedication, and determination have proven that conventional wisdom wrong. They do indeed have both: vigorous, robust lambs and gorgeous, healthy wool.
Anthony picked up the story from here. After graduating college in Grand Junction, he decided the ranch was the place he most wanted to be. It was a hard time to return - 2002-2003 was the driest year on record. Being there, full-time, all-in, Anthony saw ALL the ups and downs.
As they tell us their story, father and son joke affectionately about the hardships of that season. It is clear that their friendship is strong and they deeply respect each other.
“Me and dad work really well together…most of the time.”
Recently returned to the ranch is Brady, Angelo’s nephew. Anthony describes how they grew up around the place and each went off to school. “It’s a special place,” he shares almost reverently. “If it’s IN you and you want to make it a part of you - you are welcome.” These three men, working in concert together, are much more than the sum of their individual strengths. Generational wisdom, collaboration, and dedication thrive on this hallowed ground.
“And it takes a village,” Anthony adds. “My wife, my sister, my mom - they do so much. It takes EVERYONE to make it work.”
A theme throughout our conversation is change. Visionary leadership and forward thinking. “It’s an old industry but a changing industry - when you see something that needs to change, you change it!” Four generations have worked to ensure that it would survive, and the fifth is right around the corner.
There are so many impressive things about this operation. One value that rises to the top is the perfect balance they have achieved in stewarding the land and shepherding their flock. “We manage for the dry years,” Angelo explains. They keep the sheep constantly moving, never over-grazing, thriving in their natural element. Numbers are kept manageable and predictable, utilizing the country in a sustainable way.
Theos Swallow Fork Ranch, as a supplier of lamb to Whole Foods, is committed to rigorous standards of excellence in animal husbandry. They have participated in the GAP (Global Animal Partnership) audit resulting in a rating of 4 - quite a stellar accomplishment. As audits eventually become industry standard, their practices place them well ahead of the curve.
Twice each year they trail their sheep from winter pasture on the Utah/Colorado state line, all the way into the high country and then back again. This ovine parade is no picnic. With a pilot car to signal the need for patience and care, the family and their venerated herders ride horseback the two weeks it takes to safely move their beloved sheep to greener pastures.
We are honored to be working with the Theos Swallow Fork Ranch and count it a privilege to offer their family’s visionary Merino wool to you. We look forward to telling you more about the Theos and their exemplary operation.