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James Ranch Artisan Cheese

Eight-Month Dairy and Cheesemaking Apprenticeship in Durango, Colorado

James Ranch Artisan Cheese manages a small herd of Jersey cows for the production of raw milk and small-batch cheeses in the beautiful Animas Valley near Durango, Colorado. Operated by Dan and Becca James, James Ranch Artisan Cheese is one of several family-run enterprises on the larger James Ranch. This dairy and cheesemaking apprenticeship offers professional training for aspiring agrarians committed to a life and career at the intersection of conservation, sustainable agriculture, and artisan foods. The apprenticeship includes hands-on experience with all aspects of dairy operation and cheese production, including low-stress animal handling, milking, cheese making, affinage, biological monitoring, marketing, financial planning, Holistic Management, and land stewardship.

Start Date: Before April 1.

To apply, send a letter of interest and a resume to Dan and Becca James.

The Ranch

James Ranch Artisan Cheese

Dan and Becca James run a very progressive dairy and cheesemaking operation that departs in significant ways from conventional production. They operate seasonally, milk cows once a day, leave the calves with the mothers for ten weeks, and feed absolutely no grain to the cows. Ecological concerns and animal welfare are top priorities. Connecting people to their food source and producing nutritious, ethical and delicious food are at the core of what Dan and Becca do.

The nature of dairy and cheese-making is that a daily routine comprised of specific duties must be completed in a timely manner, without exception. Early mornings, late nights, and long days are often part of this routine. Cheese has to be made every other day so the bulk milk tank doesn't overflow. The intensity of this routine is balanced by down-time in the winter when the cows and Dan and Becca rest. Making most of their milk into cheese allows for this downtime while providing a product that is saleable throughout the winter. The cows calve in the spring as animals in nature do thus aligning with their philosophy of operating as close to nature as possible.

Their operation goes "beyond organic" in its management methods. They make decisions holistically, taking into account the impact of each decision on the land, air, water, wildlife, livestock, soil, microorganisms, local community, and the farmers' quality of life. Their Jersey cows are raised without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, hormones or antibiotics; by following the cow's natural milking season, the James' gain more time to focus on their family in the winter months, thereby enhancing their quality of life. This kind of thinking pushes the James Ranch beyond sustainable agriculture into the realm of regenerative agriculture that actually builds soil, ecosystems, communities, and opportunities.

The Mentors

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Dan and Becca run the cheese company together. Becca manages accounts and sales while Dan focuses on cheese production and dairy management. The Jameses met at the University of Washington, and lived in Seattle for several years before deciding to return to Dan's childhood home on the James Ranch in Durango, and to a life in agriculture. After visiting cheese-makers and dairies in Europe and New Zealand, they moved back to Durango, where they started a 100% grass-based dairy and cheese making operation to utilize the best resource available on the James Ranch - grass. They sold their first cheese in 2003, and later added whey-fed, pastured pork to the product mix.

Doing exhaustive research, visiting farms both domestically and internationally, and starting slowly helped Dan and Becca build a successful business. They understand how important it is for new agrarians to have a strong start-up skill-set, as they face the daunting task of starting an enterprise from scratch. Helping to train this next generation of producers, and giving them an excellent head-start in their endeavors is a great privilege and joy for Dan and Becca. They are committed to passing on the knowledge they have gained to help create farmers and food producers who can operate in such a way as to sustain themselves, and help us all move toward a healthier food production system.

In addition, Dan and Becca work closely with Claire Persichetti, a former NAP apprentice and now their dairy manager. The apprentice will work with Claire daily as they learn to care for pastures and animals. Claire can lend a lot of knowledge as well as a unique perspective to apprentices as a graduate of the NAP program herself.

The Apprenticeship

The apprentice will work and learn during the intense time of the year (March-November), and so will need to come prepared to work hard and see the immediate and rewarding results of their efforts. Although the apprentice will get to know Becca and spend time learning from her, the bulk of apprentice learning will occur while working with Dan and Claire. This eight-month apprenticeship has been offered through an ongoing partnership between James Ranch Artisan Cheese and the Quivira Coalition New Agrarian Program since 2010.

The apprentice will receive hands-on experience in dairy management and cheesemaking, as well as other activities required on a diversified farm.

This person will work closely six days a week with Dan and Claire milking cows, moving the herd, making cheese, and maintaining the cheesemaking and aging facilities. In addition, a number of other activities may be incorporated into the day, depending on the apprentice's interests: care of laying hens, pasture management, bookkeeping, herd health, care of pigs, irrigation, chicken/turkey butchering (late summer). Time off during these months is limited. Fall is a slower time of year, with more time for visiting family, attending workshops, etc...

This is a full-time, intensive education and professional training program requiring fifty to sixty hours a week, sometimes more and sometimes less. One of the joys as well as the challenges of farming is living and working with the rhythm of the seasons, and the work schedule follows the demands of season, weather, and animal needs. As an example, in the height of the season the schedule looks like this:

    Sunday: milk cows and make cheese all day.
    Monday: general ranch/cheese-room maintenance work, or possibly a day off.
    Tuesday: milk cows and make cheese all day.
    Wednesday: same as Monday.
    Thursday: milk cows and make cheese all day.
    Friday: milk cows, bottle herd-share milk, time for projects (June-September: Telluride Farmers' Market 7:00 am to 7:30 pm).
    Saturday: Durango Farmers' Market in the morning, with some rest-time following. Livestock care in the afternoon.

Enthusiasm and a sincere commitment to sustainable agriculture and food production are more important than experience, though experience with large animals and dairy is a plus. Due to the limited time available (eight months isn't that long to learn everything about cheese and dairy!), apprentices only get a small taste of the other James Ranch family enterprises. We understand that many of our applicants are interested in someday running a diversified farming operation of their own, but we want to be sure that all potential apprentices are excited about the FOCUSED nature of this training opportunity with James Ranch Artisan Cheese.

Stipend: The monthly stipend is determined each year, based on available funding; it is typically around $700 take-home pay. This is paid bi-weekly, and can be directly deposited to your bank. The stipend may or may not cover monthly expenses for the apprentice based on his or her needs and lifestyle. The position does not allow time for a second job, so the apprentice should consider his or her budgetary needs before applying to this position.

Housing: The apprentice will share a beautiful two-bedroom apartment on the ranch, located above the ranch store and cheese room, with Claire Persichetti, the James Ranch herd manager. He or she is expected to maintain a clean space. All utilities are included in housing at no additional cost to the apprentice, though the apprentice is expected to be conscientious about energy use.

Education Fund: The New Agrarian Program seeks to serve the professional interests of the apprentice whenever possible. Up to $1500 will be available for the apprentice to attend workshops, classes, and/or conferences that are directly applicable to the apprenticeship program. These funds may be utilized to reimburse travel and registration expenses. Dan and Becca do their best to accommodate such opportunities, though there will be times when it won't possible for an apprentice to leave the ranch for an extended time period, due to workload.

Quivira Coalition Activities: The apprentice is required to attend the annual Quivira Coalition conference, held each November in Albuquerque, NM; conference and hotel fees are covered by the Quivira Coalition. In addition to the conference, the apprentice will participate in an Holistic Management International webinar series geared Whole Farm/Ranch Planning Series. Apprentices are also required to write several reports during their apprenticeship; these reports will go through the NAP Coordinator at Quivira, and be posted on the Quivira website.

Time off: One day off per week provides a healthy break for the apprentice. There may be times when a day off is not possible, but other times (especially in the fall) when two days off per week might make more sense. The work pattern follows that of nature; when everything is busy and producing and growing, farmers do the same. When nature begins to slow down, there is a natural decline in activity. Some apprentices save up days off so they can take several consecutive days to go visit family or attend a class or workshop, when the ranch/dairy schedule can accommodate this time away.

Visitors: Durango has a large tourist draw. As a temporary resident, the apprentice may experience that draw through requests for visits from friends and family. The apprentice may also want to express their enthusiasm for the program by inviting friends and family to visit. We ask that the apprentice use wisdom and judgment to balance the apprenticeship demands with time available for guests. Apprentices will be asked to discuss visitors in advance with Dan and Becca.

Food: Apprentices will be responsible for taking care of their own food budget, but the James Ranch will make some contributions of meat, cheese, milk, eggs, and some veggies that are produced on the ranch.

Pets: It will not be possible for apprentices to have any pets with them during the apprenticeship. Apprentice housing is directly above the ranch store and cheese room, and it needs to be maintained as a place where the public feels welcome and safe.

All the fun stuff: No smoking or drugs on the ranch. James Ranch is a completely non-smoking environment. No partying in the apprentice housing.

Health Insurance: The ranching lifestyle has inherent dangers. While personal health insurance is not required to participate in the apprenticeship program, it is strongly encouraged. The ranch carries Workman's Compensation to cover injuries incurred on the job. But if the apprentice is injured on his or her day off, gets sick, or has or develops chronic conditions like allergies, these types of issues should be covered by personal health insurance.

Ranch Vehicles: All of the ranch vehicles are standard transmission. The apprentice will be expected to competently operate these vehicles. Apprentices must have a valid driver's license.

Personal Vehicle: There are no instances (or very few) when the apprentice would be required to use his/her own vehicle around the ranch. In order to run personal errands and travel on days off, however, the apprentice will need the flexibility of his or her own vehicle.

Living in Durango, Colorado: The James Ranch is about ten miles north of Durango, Colorado. Durango is a dynamic town with lots of culture, coffee shops, a farmers market, good restaurants, several micro-breweries, and a community that loves outdoor activities. Apprentices are encouraged to become involved in the community, work and ranch-life permitting; past apprentices have loved the balance of the quietness of the ranch, and the bustling town of Durango.

In the Animas Valley, at 6700 feet, summers are warm, often with monsoon rains in July and August. The daily summer highs are between 80 and 90 degrees, with lows in the 40s and 50s. Spring and fall can involve snow, freezing temperatures, and periodic wind.

2016 Apprentice

Kristin Sigurdsen - Agriculture has always been a part of my life. I grew up living and working on my dad's dairy farm in Braham, Minnesota and later Barron, Wisconsin. In Minnesota we had a smaller, eighty cow herd and milked in a tie-stall barn. Wanting to advance the farm my parents chose to move to Barron to a larger farm. Here our herd grew to 250 cows, and we started milking in a more efficient double-ten herringbone parlor.

As a kid I helped on the farm with daily barn chores such as pushing up feed, sweeping aisles, and cleaning stalls. As I got older I began taking over daily calf chores. This consisted of feeding, bedding, and cleaning calf pens. Once I was tall enough I became a regular in the milking rotation and learned to drive farm machinery. When I reached high school, my summers consisted of daily milking, calf feeding, and field work.

I enjoyed working on the farm, however, towards the end of high school I did not think farming was the career route that I wanted to pursue. Shortly after, moved to St. Paul to pursue a bachelor's degree in biology and to make my way in the field of healthcare. Increasingly during school, I dreaded going to classes when I knew I could be outside working on the farm. Throughout college I would go home to the farm many weekends, holidays, and the summers to work.

During my senior year of college, I began thinking about opportunities in agriculture. I ended up getting an internship in the agronomy department at an agricultural cooperative located near my family's farm where I learned what it takes to run an extensive business. However, it left me wanting to learn more about land management and stewardship. This opportunity allowed me to continue being involved on my family's farm, and generously gave me time off for every hay cutting (cutting hay is my favorite!).

I returned to school, graduated in December 2013 and moved back to the farm, this time taking on more responsibilities as a manager. As luck would have it, it turned out to be one of the coldest winters I could remember. There were days-on-end in the single digits or below zero, and significant snowfall. One of the barns we rented, and many others in the area caved under the weight of all of the snow that fell. I had always enjoyed farm work, but that winter was rough and I started thinking that maybe I was not cut out for my father's style of farming.

That winter caused me to think more intentionally about what my future would hold and what I wanted out of life. Still unsure of what to do next I took a few months to travel and visit friends and family. I decided to move back to St. Paul and look for opportunities to use my biology degree. Numerous job applications and cover letters later I landed a contract job at a dairy testing laboratory that insures the quality of dairy products. I was able to learn about the importance and procedures of laboratory testing for dairy producers and dairy companies, but I still longed to work outdoors. When my contract was up I once again found myself returning home to work on the farm.

During this time, I began to dream about how I could make dairy farming a reality. I realized I wanted something simpler than my dad's farming operation, and I started wondering how I could build a smaller operation and still turn a profit. I researched different farming styles, and found myself drawn to sustainable farming practices. I was impressed with the sustainable method of holistic management, and the small artisan farms making quality products from their own milk. It seemed to be exactly what I was looking for but I didn't really know where to start.

Knowing my interests, a good friend sent me the application for the New Agrarian Program apprenticeship with James Ranch Artisan Cheese. She told me, "You need to apply for this!" I read the application and knew it was indeed something I needed to apply to. The James Ranch encompassed much of what I wanted to learn. I knew it could provide me with experience I was looking for to grow in my knowledge of sustainable farming, holistic management, cheesemaking, and much more! I am so blessed to have been chosen for this wonderful opportunity, and am very excited to gain hands on experience from Dan, Becca, and Claire!

Current and Past Apprentices

2015 - Phil Paulson