Skip to Content

San Juan Ranch

Eight-Month Ranching Apprenticeship in the San Luis Valley of Colorado

San Juan Ranch is a certified organic, grass-fed beef ranch located in the San Luis Valley near Saguache, Colorado operated by George Whitten and Julie Sullivan. The apprenticeship curriculum includes Holistic Management, animal husbandry, range health monitoring, planned grazing, herding, ranch infrastructure maintenance, improving soil by grazing cover crops on irrigated cropland, finishing process for grass‐fed cattle, low‐stress livestock handling, and organic certification. In addition, the curriculum may include a series of professional development opportunities. Apprentices emerge from the program with tangible skills, both technical and interpersonal, that are essential for successful employment in sustainable agriculture, and for eventual ownership and management of their own operation.

Start Date: Approximately March 1, 2016 (Apprentices will attend an orientation at the end of the week of March 15 in the Santa Fe area.)

Application Deadline: December 1, 2015

The Ranch

Blue Range Ranch, AKA San Juan Ranch

The San Juan Ranch is a certified organic, one hundred percent grass-fed cattle ranch. George and Julie run a cow-calf to finish operation. They have approximately 150 mother cows at this time. Calving occurs in the spring months (April-May). They retain ownership of all their calves. Steer calves are kept and finished on grass pasture. Heifer calves enter the herd as mother cows, are sold as bred heifers or join the steer calves in the meat program. In the fall, cattle are purchased and added to the finishing operation, bringing the total number of animals under management to more than 500 that finish at approximately sixteen to twenty-eight months and are mainly sold wholesale through Sweet Grass Cooperative, a production and marketing co-op of small, sustainable ranchers co-founded by George and Julie.

The ranch runs on both private and public land. This includes the home ranch and farm, their BLM allotment, leased ranch land and organic farm ground planted to cover crops for grazing. Ranching in the Intermountain West needs to adapt to changing environmental conditions, such as precipitation patterns, range biota, and unpredictable weather patterns, as well as recurring drought and the long-term impacts of climate change. With this in mind, George and Julie closely monitor the various land under their management to determine which areas to graze in any year. For example, they may take voluntary non-use on their BLM allotment, depending on weather and vegetation recovery.

On the home ranch, George and Julie have reduced water usage while increasing the diversity and vigor of their irrigated meadows and uplands. This land has held onto its productivity in the worst of the drought, due to decades of attention to soil porosity, plant density and soil cover. They manage their BLM grazing permit proactively, alternating timing of grazing, monitoring utilization and species diversity to ensure range health. They partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine appropriate use of livestock on the U.S.F.W.S. Baca National Wildlife Refuge to improve wildlife habitat, and maintain water flows in wetlands. They collaborated with Holistic Management International and the New Mexico State Land Office on a land restoration project outside Albuquerque, NM using cattle to restart biological processes at a former test site of Kirtland Air Force Base. Recently, they've begun partnering with organic farmers who raise green cover crops as grazing forage on farmland; grazing cattle on these fields increases soil carbon, improves soil structure and provides high-quality finishing forage for their cattle.

George and Julie have come to understand profoundly that it is all about relationships -- between husband and wife as partners in their particular adventure, between themselves and the land which sustains them, and between the ecological processes within the soil, on which all the other relationships depend. Their management illustrates that ranching can restore and increase healthy biological processes while providing a livelihood to a ranching family and contributing to a sound and peaceful rural community.

The Mentors

For George Whitten and Julie Sullivan every day is a chance to bridge the gap between environmentalism and agriculture. Personally and professionally, they work to dissolve the prejudices between ranchers and environmentalists, urban and rural people, and to build bridges between them. They strive to find real solutions to heal the planet and keep family agriculture alive in the U.S.

George's grandfather homesteaded in the San Luis Valley in the 1890s, and the family has been ranching (sheep or cattle) in the valley since that time. As an active member of the ranching community since the 1970s, George has worked towards collaborative forward-thinking management of resources in the San Luis Valley. A practitioner of Holistic Management for over thirty years, George uses this as a lens and adapts management practices to fit the land and operation under his management. The symbiotic relationship between cattle and grasslands, and the capacity of intact grasslands to store carbon are central to George's vision and practice as a rancher.

Julie was born and raised in California. After working as an actor, arts administrator, and starting a private progressive preschool in Seattle, she earned her Master's in Environmental Education and subsequently taught interdisciplinary environmental education at both undergraduate and graduate levels for the Audubon Expedition Institute. She spent those years challenging students to look beyond surface conflicts between environmentalism and agriculture, and to see the common values and goals shared by both points of view. After over a decade living outside teaching for the Expedition, Julie joined George at the ranch in 2001.

The SJR apprentice will also work closely with Martha Skelley, San Juan Ranch Foreman. Martha is a NAP graduate and recently completed a year as a Foreman-in-Training, a management training position developed in partnership between San Juan Ranch and the New Agrarian Program. Martha began her agricultural career working on the farm at her college, specifically, as cattle boss. After graduating, she continued pursuing her agricultural ambition, working on several different operations, focusing on cattle, pigs, chickens, fruit trees, and market gardening. Grazing cattle is where her heart has settled, in particular, using cattle to improve degraded landscapes and soil health. Martha's mentorship of the apprentice will include both hands-on training as well as study in soil, animal nutrition, and plant identification.

The Apprenticeship

The San Juan Ranch is a certified organic, grass-based cattle ranch located in the San Luis Valley of Colorado offering a professional training opportunity for aspiring agrarians committed to a life and career at the intersection of conservation and sustainable agriculture. This eight-month apprenticeship has been offered through an ongoing partnership between the San Juan Ranch and the Quivira Coalition New Agrarian Program since 2009. As of the spring of 2016, we will have successfully trained and graduated eight apprentices and one foreman-in-training.

The apprentice will receive hands-on experience with a cow-calf and grass-finishing operation, including Holistic Management, low-stress animal handling, animal husbandry, herding, biological monitoring, land stewardship and introductory financial planning.

The apprentice will work closely six days a week with George, Julie, and Martha on a variety of ranching tasks including: daily cattle care: feeding, health monitoring, and pasture movements; building and maintaining ranch infrastructure (fences, water pipelines, vehicles); pasture planning; analyzing and planning for nutritional needs of cattle at each stage of grass finishing process; monitoring forage quality and utilization; maintaining certified organic, certified humane handling, and CattleMax records; financial analysis and decisions.

Enthusiasm and a sincere commitment to sustainable agriculture and food production are important and applicants with livestock experience are preferred. Physical strength and stamina are required.

This apprenticeship is physically, emotionally, and intellectually challenging. The apprentice will be the only apprentice and one of very few employees at the San Juan Ranch. If accepted, from March to November of 2016 you will:
  • Work outside much of the time, often engaged in monotonous and extremely physical activities.
  • Live in a rural place, near a small town with few amenities or neighbors.
  • Live in close proximity to your mentors and respect their homes and property.
  • Work closely with a small team, day after day.
  • Work closely with your mentors daily, adding independent tasks as skills and ability allow. Maintain high work quality standards even when working independently.
  • Have one day off a week to attend to personal matters during your apprenticeship.
  • Receive a stipend of approximately $700 a month.
  • Learn a tremendous amount about yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, how a small-scale sustainable agriculture operation works, and if a career in agriculture is really for you.

Stipend: The monthly stipend is determined each year, based on available funding; it is typically around $700 take-home pay. This is paid at the end of each month, 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: Apprentice housing takes a few different forms, including classic Silver Streak trailers on site at the ranch, rented housing nearby, and a house at the family farm. Housing location is been dependent on season and where cattle are located. Heat and water are included in housing and are not additional expenses for the apprentice - though we do ask that you be conscientious of your energy use. Please note: housing can be provided only for the apprentice. Pets, spouses, significant others, and/or children cannot be accommodated on the ranch.

Time Off: The apprentice will have one fixed day off a week. If an apprentice needs additional days for specific activities, he or she should let the mentors know as soon as possible. Be aware that the ranch and the herd dictate workflow over the course of the apprenticeship.

Food: The apprentice will receive partial board in the form of access to the ranch's beef. The ranch makes bulk purchases of staple foods, and apprentices are more than welcome to buy from those bulk purchases or add to that order. In summer, the ranch garden (tended by apprentice and mentors) provides a significant amount of produce available to the apprentice. In addition, a group meal will occur regularly, provided by the ranch; planning and preparing this meal will be a shared activity.

Education Stipend: Limited additional funding will be available for professional development opportunities during the apprenticeship, including conferences, workshops and trainings pertinent to the apprenticeship, and directly linked to sustainable agriculture. These funds can be utilized to reimburse travel and registration expenses.

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 may have opportunities to participate in Quivira Land & Water restoration workshops, and to visit other NAP apprenticeship locations. Apprentices are also required to write quarterly reports during their apprenticeship; these reports will go through the NAP Coordinator at Quivira, and be posted on the Quivira website.

Capstone Project: One of the important elements of the program is the Capstone Project, an independent project designed and executed by the apprentice. Based on an element of ranch management of particular interest and long-term value to the apprentice's professional goals, the Capstone Project must also be of benefit to the mentor ranch. The apprentices typically initiate work on a Capstone Project at the four-month mark, but conversations regarding the project start soon after the apprenticeship begins. Keep in mind that projects should have a substantial leadership-development aspect (i.e. demonstration of ability and willingness to take initiative, self-directed learning, and creation of a useful end product).

NO Smoking or Drugs: No smoking or drugs on ranch, range, vehicles, housing - the ranch is a completely non-smoking, no-drug environment.

NO Partying: No partying. Having a beer/glass of wine or two after work is just fine.

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. Apprentices will need to know how to drive stick-shift. Previous experience with backing up trailers is not required, but greatly appreciated.

Personal Vehicle: While there are no instances (or very few) when an apprentice would be asked to use a personal vehicle around the ranch, the apprentice will need the flexibility of his or her own vehicle in order to run personal errands such as purchasing groceries and travel on days off.

Living in the San Luis Valley: The San Juan Ranch is a fifteen minute drive from the small town of Saguache, Colorado, and an hour drive from the towns of Salida, Colorado to the north, and Alamosa, Colorado to the south. The Valley is a steppe biome, a high-altitude grassland similar to the Tibetan plateau. The climate is arid, with summer highs of ninety degrees and cool nights. Winter is often extremely cold (down to 20+ degrees below zero at night and highs between zero degrees and freezing). It is a vast and open landscape surrounded by 14,000 foot mountain peaks. Sparsely populated with an economy focused on agriculture, the Valley's culture is eclectic, ranging from the Buddhist retreat centers in Crestone to the annual Ski-Hi Rodeo in Monte Vista.

Application Process

Apply: Submit a completed application via the online form or by email by December 1, 2015. The application requires a current resume, three professional references, and thoughtful responses to a short series of questions. George and Julie (San Juan Ranch) and Sarah Wentzel-Fisher (Quivira Coalition - New Agrarian Program) will carefully review all applications and contact applicants they have selected for an interview.

Interviews: The New Agrarian Program has a two-phase interview process. Interviews will be scheduled with top candidates between December 7 and December 21. These interviews will last approximately one and a half hours, with the initial fifteen to twenty minutes conducted in conference via Skype or Google Hangouts, and the remaining time done via conference phone call.

Three of these candidates will be asked to travel to the ranch for an overnight work visit and interview between January 8 and January 25. A travel stipend will be provided to help with travel expenses.

Award: The top candidate will be offered the apprenticeship position by February 1, 2016.

Current and Past Apprentices

Coming soon.