San Juan Ranch12 Month Ranching Apprenticeship in the San Luis Valley of Colorado
Application Cycle: Fall
Apprenticeship Start-Date: February or March
Blue Range Ranch, AKA San Juan Ranch
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. The ranch runs on both private and public land. This includes the home ranch and farm, their BLM allotment, the USFWS Baca Wildlife Refuge, leased ranch land and on-farm circles of organic farmers who plant cover crops for grazing, using livestock to restore nutrients to their fields.
As an active member of the ranching community since the 1980s, George has worked towards collaborative forward-thinking management of resources in the San Luis Valley. A practitioner of Holistic Management for over 25 years, George uses this as a lens and adapts management practices to fit the land and operation under his management. He has succeeded in reducing water usage while increasing the diversity and vigor of irrigated meadows and uplands. This land has held on to its productivity in the worst of the drought, due to decades of attention to soil porosity, plant diversity, and soil cover.
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.
The San Juan Ranch is a certified organic, 100% grass-fed cattle ranch. George and Julie run a cow-calf to finish operation. They have approximately 135 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. Animals finish at approximately 18-28 months and become meat for Blue Range Ranch, which is George and Julie's direct sales marketing business.
The ranch currently uses a number of different management techniques as active responses to recurring drought and to the long-term impacts of climate change. Ranching in the Intermountain West needs to adapt to changing conditions, such as precipitation patterns, range biota, and unpredictable weather patterns. 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.
George and Julie have assisted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in determining appropriate use of livestock on the new U.S.F.W.S. Baca National Wildlife Refuge near Crestone, Colorado, to improve wildlife habitat, maintain water flows and wetlands, and control invasive species. They have collaborated with Holistic Management International and the New Mexico State Land Office in their work at La Semilla, near Albuquerque. They used cattle to restore a severely degraded piece of land, at a former test site of Kirtland Air Force Base. They also closely monitor their BLM grazing lease lands. They note, and the BLM confirms, an increase in wildlife on these lands. Recently, they have partnered with organic farmers who raise green cover crops as grazing forage on farmland, thereby increasing organic matter and water retention in the soil while reducing the fertilizer and compost costs to the farmer.
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.
George and Julie began taking short-term interns in 2003, and then joined up with the Quivira Coalition in 2009 to offer year-long apprenticeships. In this apprenticeship, participants have exposure to animal husbandry, range health monitoring, pasture rotation planning, Holistic Management, finishing process for grass-fed animals, herding, range infrastructure maintenance, marketing grass-finished beef, business planning, low-stress livestock handling and small-scale gardening. In addition, the curriculum may include other professional development opportunities, such as attendance at relevant conferences and workshops.
By the beginning of 2013, San Juan Ranch will have graduated 4 New Agrarian Program ranch apprentices.
Quivira Coalition New Agrarian Program Director