Photography by Sergio Salvador
At first glance, Timothy Willms looks very much the part of a rancher in New Mexico — ­fading jeans, long-sleeve Western shirt, intricate silver belt buckle, a straw hat curled up at the sides from long wear. We’re looking out over Talus Wind Ranch, 460 acres of rolling landscape that ­Timothy works south of Santa Fe near a former Indian pueblo called Galisteo. I was so agog at the setting — Sangre de Cristo Mountains off in the distance, impossibly blue skies streaked with white clouds overhead— that I nearly missed the turnoff for his place. Timothy used to travel the world to buy fine art. Now, he raises heritage turkeys and grass-fed sheep here in this wild country while gently proselytizing about “eating local.” After all, he wonders, what’s so different about raising animals rather than dealing in fine art?

Minutes after we meet, oblivious to the sce­nery, we are deep into a discussion about the ­provenance of food, of knowing where it comes from. “I’m fascinated with authenticity,” he says. “Genuine food.” Collectors of art want to know the provenance of artwork they buy — who has owned it in the past — so why shouldn’t we know who raises our food and how it was raised? The heritage turkeys Timothy raises are closer to the turkey our forefathers ate. Think less white meat, more dark meat, definitely more robust. “The more information the consumer has about their food,” he says, “it’s like educating people about art.” He stops and shoots me a look from behind big art-dealerish spectacles to see how the metaphysical discussion about gobblers is going over, then steers me down to check out the sheep.

The economics of ranch life are daunting compared to Timothy’s former life buying fine art. With an undergrad degree from Syracuse University and a master’s from New York University, he worked his way up in the art world, eventually traveling to art auctions in Chicago, New York, London, Paris and even Tokyo buying art for clients and himself. Then he decided to follow a youthful hankering to ranch in the “Land of Enchantment,” New Mexico. “I wanted to be grounded more, rooted,” he says. Ah, the fantasies of going back to the land. He rises early on the ranch, often rendered sleepless by worry, whether about a visit from the vet or an equipment breakdown or meeting his holiday delivery schedule for 250 heritage turkeys.

Taking off his cowboy hat to mop his brow, Timothy transforms instantly from rugged rancher to balding art dealer. He started small, he says, raising a few heritage turkeys and grass-fed sheep while continuing his art career in Santa Fe. He expanded until he discovered that he and other small-ranch owners nearby were having difficulty getting their product to local markets. “It’s very hard,” he says. “Here, you have to watch every penny. In the art world, the profit margin is substantial. That’s been a big learning experience for me,” he says, laughing ruefully as he beckons his aging horse, Pando. “If a painting gets lost in shipment, you can track down the boob that did it. But you can’t yell at Mother Nature and get far.”

Timothy has an almost spiritual connection to his animals. His heritage turkeys move freely in a shaded run, unlike the typical turkey of today, the Broad Breasted White, which has such short legs and ponderous breasts that it can’t run, fly or even mate. Heritage turkeys — traditional breeds that can mate on their own — have a different texture, of course. “There is a little jaw action going on,” says Timothy. “You can taste that it’s genuine.” (A little post-holiday tidbit: We eat 68 million turkeys at Thanksgiving and Christmas in the U.S. every year, according to the National Turkey Federation.)

Living off the land apparently runs in his Midwestern roots. His father’s family farmed; his ­mother’s grew hops for beer. Timothy worries about the plight of the small family ranch today. “This generation of farmers and ranchers could be the last, because they are in their 70s,” he says. “Most supplement their income teaching school, working on well drilling or doing automotive repair.” Like a choosy art connoisseur, Timothy concentrates on helping small ranchers with only 30 cows or 30 sheep get their work to market. (He stops to laugh, realizing he’s said “their work,” like a work of art, instead of “their animals.”) “I found a good niche for me, telling the stories of farmers and how they raise their animals,” he says. He sees no disconnect between his lives — that one in the busy art world, this one in the solace of New Mexican mountains raising turkeys and sheep. “I think of art nurturing the soul and the mind,” he says, “while food enriches the body.”