James Ranch Artisan CheeseEight-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.
Meet the mentors
Meet the apprentice
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 , 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.
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 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.
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, apprentices will work with Tarryn Dixon, NAP 2018 apprentice, in the cheese room; and with Lukman, NAP 2019 apprentice, in the pastures and milking parlor.
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,Tarryn, and Lukman. 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 for five to six days a week with Dan, Tarryn, and Lukman 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, irrigation, and marketing.. 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, fresh cheese making
- 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.
Start and End date: April 1st – Mid-November
Who would be the main mentor and what is their primary role on the ranch?: Dan is the primary mentor with Becca filling in with marketing and accounting work as well as help working through communication issues. Lukman and Tarryn will provide additional dairy, and land management mentoring and Tarryn will be in the cheese room with the apprentice often.
(OPTIONAL) Are there specific challenges on the operation that the apprentice could help find possible solutions to address?: A consistent biological monitoring plan and continued refinement of our animal nutrition program. Developing new types of cheese is always a possibility, too.
Stipend: The monthly stipend is determined each year, based on available funding; it is typically around $725 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 cheese room,. He or she is expected to maintain a clean space. All utilities and rent are included in housing at no additional cost to the apprentice, though the apprentice is expected to be conscientious about energy use.
Quivira Coalition Activities: This apprenticeship is offered through Quivira Coalition’s New Agrarian Program. The full cohort of apprentices on regenerative ranches and farms across the west will attend an April orientation, participate in supplemental education provided in partnership with Holistic Management International, and attend the annual Quivira Conference, hosted with Holistic Management International and the American Grassfed Association, in November. 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. We are working toward a regular two days off but there may be times when a day off is not possible, but other times (especially in the fall) when two days off per week is easier to accomplish. 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, and eggs 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 cheese room and very near the market and grill, and it needs to be maintained as a place where the public feels welcome and safe.
All the fun stuff (what is your policy on recreational drugs, alcohol, smoking, partying, bringing guns, on site etc): 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. James Ranch Artisan Cheese 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.
Services available to the apprentice:
- Washer and dryer: There is a washer/dryer in the dairy barn just a short walk away. This is used to wash dairy towels but is available to apprentices as well.
- Internet connection: Wi Fi is provided.
Additional items the apprentice will need for the duration of the apprenticeship? The apartment is furnished with beds and couches/chairs. All bedding, towels etc. are the responsibility of the apprentice. The kitchen is stocked with pots and pans and tools but if you have a favorite skillet or knife, we recommend you bring it.
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.
Want to read more? Here’s our June 2017 New Agrarian Newsletter profile of James Ranch Artisan Cheese.
2020 Applications are now closed
Check back October 2020 to apply for a 2021 apprenticeship at James Ranch
“In college I was steeped in hard science, on my probable way toward a veterinary degree. I worked in research labs, loved learning (and animals!), and the narrative was that school was the place you learn. During my Junior year I had my first environmental ethics class and Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer came in to speak about Traditional Ecological Knowledge versus Scientific Ecological Knowledge. To us she posed the thought: “Though the Earth provides us with all that we need, we have created a consumption-driven economy that asks, ‘What more can we take from the Earth?’ and almost never ‘What does the Earth ask of us in return?’” – Excerpt from the New Agrarian Voices Blog post
Lukman is joining us from Indonesia. He has been living and studying in the US for many years now and will graduate from Fort Lewis College this spring. He is very excited to be continuing his education in agriculture and we are pleased to introduce him as this years James Ranch apprentice. At James Ranch Lukman will participate in both dairy and vegetable production throughout his 8 month apprenticeship.
2018 – 2019 Apprentice
Tarryn Dixon, Second Year Apprentice
Food is the driving force that led me to an interest in a career in regenerative agriculture and ultimately to the James Ranch. Cooking is a creative outlet, a source of curiosity, and a sense of home. Family gatherings center around eating; I come from a supportive family of great cooks. Dinner parties with friends are a chance to share recipes and try new flavors. Shortly after high school, I moved to Austin, Texas to attend Texas Culinary Academy earning a degree in Culinary Arts. Cooking as a profession could take me anywhere, teach me more about food than I had ever imagined, and keep me from working the desk job I had always feared. Restaurant work was full of passion, fast paced, and hot. I loved it. Working with my hands to create meals people would never forget became my passion. Cooking lead me to jobs all over Texas, eventually taking me to Alaska, then Idaho. I worked for a lot of brilliant chefs, in very dynamic kitchen environments. Each one taught more about flavor, consistency, and product quality. It was in Idaho I found a love of mountains and the surrounding nature I had never felt before. Idaho also introduced me to raw milk. It is legal to buy in the supermarket there, and I was hooked. The flavor, texture, and health benefits of raw milk were something I couldn’t live without! Ten years into my cooking career I began to feel a shift within myself. I started to notice small cracks in the restaurant system that did not sit right with what I foresaw as the future of food. There was a need to put forth effort to bring in local, sustainable, delicious product. Every restaurant, hotel, and resort I had been employed were sourcing basically the same ingredients with a few exceptions trying to bring in local product. Cheap, mass produced items received from large industry food purveyors. It all came down to what was cheap and convenient in order to keep food costs low. As a cook I had no idea what would help the local community, the environment, and the earth. I didn’t feel connected to the people producing the very meat, vegetables, and ingredients I was so enamored with cooking. I knew restaurants and chefs were creating relationships with farmers and producers and I wanted to be involved. Independent research lead me to interests in humane animal raising and butchery, biodiversity in farming, and land stewardship. Determined to get out of the kitchen and closer to the source of where good food came from, I left Idaho in search of a new life. On a whim, I landed in Durango, Colorado and a friend introduced me to the James Ranch. Their philosophy and way of life was just what I had been searching for. Humanely raised grass-fed beef, organically grown produce, and raw milk cheese from grass-fed Jersey cows. Cheese had always been a huge part of my life, and I saw an opportunity in cheese I had not noticed before. Dan was bringing together the things I was beginning to love; raw milk, land stewardship, and a relationship with the animals he was raising. The apprentice position had already been filled for the 2017 season, so I began working for The Harvest Grill, a food wagon here at the ranch that put out the best burger I had ever tasted. It felt good to leave my cooking career on a high note serving quality product that was sourced locally in a restaurant with the same ideology I had come to recognize is needed in the industry. This apprenticeship will not only teach me the traditions and methods of making yummy raw milk cheeses, keeping me close to my culinary roots, it will also bring me closer to the land, animals, and sunshine that makes creating good food a possibility! Tarryn is returning for a second season as a apprentice at James Ranch!
Emma “Louie” West
The hot, arid desert of Phoenix, Arizona was not an ideal place to develop and interest in gardening much less agriculture. That interest would emerge many years and a few journeys later. As a child my parents, both involved in the arts, raised me to love music, painting, and other outlets of creative expression. I followed these interests into a performing arts high school where I was a music production and performance major (violin and piano studies). As a dedicated advocator for women’s rights and education, I was lucky enough to forgo part of my last year of high school to pursue a unique opportunity to do research on the women’s education in China. It was in Asia where I found a deep connection to the land and realized the vital importance of environmental work and food safety for developing communities.
After returning home, while continuing my involvement with the arts and humanitarian work but no longer wanting to pursue those fields, I sought out a new home. My love for the outdoors and an emerging interest in conservation brought me to Durango, Colorado for college as an environmental studies major. A few years in, finding many similar approaches in conservation and humanitarian organizations emerging with a general lack of forward progress I decided I needed to look in a new direction and leave school.
My curiosity in wildcrafting and foraging had led me to develop a thorough knowledge of regional edible and medicinal plants during my years living in Durango, but I realized that I had little concept of where and how the majority of the food I consumed was grown. After getting connected to the local farming community, I rekindled my interest in food in both a culinary and agricultural perspective. I had grown up cooking with my mother but farming with small local operations gave me new insight into the importance of food for both overall wellbeing and environmentally sound stewardship of the land. Various agricultural practices such as permaculture and Korean Natural Farming caught my attention and spurred me to delve deeper into understanding different aspects of farming on industrial and small scale levels. All of my interests tied back to food and I realized that sustainable agriculture and the philosophy and practices behind it created a road towards progress in environmental, humanitarian, and even social fronts.
In the spring of the next year, a farming friend told me about the New Agrarian Program apprenticeship with James Ranch Artisan Cheese. The opportunity to learn about holistic land and animal management coupled with learning the age old craft of cheese making was a perfect melding new knowledge and hands on work that I had been searching for. Little did I know that Dan, Becca, Claire, and the rest of the James family would become such wonderful and important people in my life. Their philosophy towards their land, animals, and each other has given me an entirely new perspective and has seeded an even deeper love for this land and the people in it than I knew I could have. I am beyond blessed to have received this opportunity to learn and continue to look forward to my new understanding of agriculture and where it will take me.
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