By Selah Blue Smith and Issa Nasatir
Yoder, CO – About an hour East of Colorado Springs, armed guards await visitors to Freedom Acres Ranch. They search vehicles, administer pat downs, and photograph IDs. In recent weeks, the security for this Black-owned family ranch has heightened after a social media storm brought national attention to what the owners say have been repeated attacks on their land and animals since around the time they bought it in 2020.
On a recent Saturday, cars of volunteers who had heard about the family’s plight were instructed to follow a white pick-up truck onto the property. There, ranch owners C.W. and Nicole Mallery, handed out gloves and gave directions on where they might need help around the farm. The Mallerys were busy juggling their daily responsibilities and responding to a few eager reporters, including a camera crew from VICE News.
Just the day before, about a hundred people gathered at the steps of the Denver Capitol Building on Feb. 17 to protest what the Mallerys say is the inaction and misaction of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office to the attacks on their property.
Wearing a Carhartt jacket and a white cowboy hat, C.W. Mallery had a simple message for the assembled rallygoers from the steps of the statehouse: “I just want to farm in peace.”
A day later on their farm, as they tended to their goats and other chores, the Mallerys talked about what had originally brought them to the eastern flats of El Paso County. Before the Mallerys bought their current property in August 2020, they were living in Houston, Texas, growing herbs and tomatoes in their backyard even while living in the big city.
In early 2019, they began to reevaluate their living situation.
“Just like with COVID, a lot of people kind of changed professions,” said Nicole Mallery, standing out in a peach-colored tracksuit against the backdrop of the snowy windswept farm. “You have people that went into doing things that they loved so that they knew that their life had purpose. I believe that that’s what led us here … having a ranch and growing our own food.”
As a self-described “nature baby,” C.W. always had a dream of owning his own farm.
“When you ride down the highway, you see the kid in the backseat looking out the window. That’s me,” he said. “I’m looking out the window at all the cows, the horses, the farmhouses… I’m just soaking it all in.”
C.W. grew up surrounded by Houston cowboy culture. It was not surprising to see a Black cowboy riding down the street. When looking for a new home, the Mallerys did not know they would wind up in Yoder, Colorado, but both Nicole and C.W. say the land chose them.
The Mallerys created Freedom Acres Ranch as a place of education and for building community.
“The purpose has always been to educate, and C.W. loves this part of it,” Nicole Mallery said. “That’s his part, to educate not only youth, and other people in the community, but our family members.”
When they first bought the land, Nicole gave her mother some eggs from the ranch. She remembers her mom saying, “this doesn’t taste right, this tastes different.” Nicole replied that of course it did — it was fresh.
Just last week, her mother learned she had to get a stent put in her heart, leading Nichole to worry about the processed food that could have caused her mother’s ailment.
“In that moment I realized that … the dream was — is — to be able to get that fresh food [to] communities that don’t have access,” Nicole Mallery said. “Our mission is so much bigger than just ranching and farming; we’re saving lives.”
Lately, though, the couple says they have been losing them in the form of their livestock and pets. Hence, the new security at the ranch, and the recent rally at the statehouse.
At the top of the Capitol steps on that brisk February morning, the Mallerys stood with the rally’s organizers and speakers such as Portia Prescott, the president of the NAACP Colorado Montana Wyoming State-Area Conference, and Tyrone Glover, a civil-rights lawyer the Mallerys have entrusted with their case.
“Justice is supposed to be blind,” Glover said at the rally. “Justice is supposed to work for all people, regardless of race, sex, creed, color or nationality. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Denver, Colorado, South Central L.A., Brooklyn, New York, El Paso County. We take care of each other. We show up for each other, we represent each other, we make sure that this justice system works the way that it is supposed to — not the way that it is.”
Another focal point of the rally was support for the C.A.R.E.N. Act, proposed state legislation that would impose legal consequences for racially motivated emergency calls. Tony Exum, a Democratic member of the Colorado House who represents a district adjacent to Freedom Acres Ranch, stepped out of the Capitol building’s doors to address the crowd. Exum said that when he originally heard of the story, he immediately called the sheriff’s department.
“We’ve got a narrative that’s been developed that’s one-sided, and we’re going to change that,” he said. “We’re going to make sure that you hear and everybody else hears both sides of this story.”
In the last two years, C.W. and Nicole Mallery have accused their neighbors of $200,000 in damages including smashed cameras, broken fences, and poisoned dogs and livestock, many of which later died. In return, one neighbor, Teresa Clark, has made multiple accusations against the Mallerys of stalking, including a call that led to an early February arrest. According to Colorado Newsline, the Sheriff’s department said they’d received 46 calls from Clark, 47 calls from Nicole Mallery, and 11 from C.W. Mallery between August 2021 and September 2022.
The Mallerys organized the march on the Denver Capitol in part to demand an investigation into the ways the sheriff’s office has handled the conflict.
The protest attracted a variety of supporters, including some in the agriculture field. Alicia, a local worm farmer who didn’t want to give her last name, said she felt the Denver sustainability movement was quite divided.
“Especially as a person of color and being one of the only brown faces in the industry,” she said, instead of “coming together and making it more of a collaborative thing, people are more competitive.” Today, 45,000 out of the 3.4 million farmers in the United States identify as Black according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
“I think it’s just a narrative that we were told growing up, that’s not the job we do … especially … in Black communities,” said a Denver urban farmer also at the protest, who added he hopes to someday have more land. “I’ve been trying to basically live his lifestyle,” he said about C.W. “Helping him would be helping me later.”
Nicole says what the couple has been through has only made them stronger. Despite everything she feels her neighbors are trying to take from her, the gifts they have received have outweighed the losses.
“You take a cow from me, but I get 15 to 20 beautiful people that come on, and they volunteer and we work together,” she said.
On Saturday, Feb. 18, volunteers who flocked to the ranch from as far away as New York and California wrapped wires around the base of solar-powered lights and attached them to fence posts along the perimeter. Snow had piled up, and each volunteer had to make their own decision about how cold they would allow their feet to get.
“I couldn’t dare imagine sitting idly by,” said Gladys Wilson, who came all the way from Florida to help the Mallerys with whatever they might need. “And so I didn’t. I packed up everything, … gave up my apartment … and I came here to help.”
Bella Czace came to volunteer after seeing an Instagram post about the incident.
“I grew up on ranches. And my father was a Black cowboy,” Bella said. “So he experienced a … lot of messed up things, and … so it just really hit close to home.”
She and Zane came from Denver to volunteer. When they initially came out, security cameras at the gates of Freedom Acres Ranch had been destroyed, Zane said, and as he and others helped repair them, cars would drive by multiple times while others would take videos of them as they worked.
Nowadays, there have been more eyes at the ranch to watch back. Nicole said she hopes that thanks to more supportive eyes and ears on the farm, they and their neighbors will get over their ongoing conflict.
“I don’t think we’ll be singing Kumbaya or anything,” she added, “but just being able to coexist.”
If that’s possible, C.W. said he wants to use Freedom Acres Ranch to share his love for agriculture with others.
Despite all their current hardships, Nicole and C.W. are excited about the community they are building and looking forward to nurturing the next iteration of their dream.
“You make your own path,” C.W. said from the boards of an under-construction porch, gesturing to the first structure he built on the property. “You determine your own dream, follow it. Dream big.”