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, owned and 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, organic certification, Audubon Conservation Ranch certification, assisting with the ranch Airbnb, and both direct and wholesale marketing of beef. 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. 


San Juan Ranch

San Juan Ranch is a certified organic, grass-fed beef ranch located in the San Luis Valley near Saguache, Colorado, owned and operated by George Whitten and Julie Sullivan. The ranch runs on both private and public land. This includes the home ranch and farm, a 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.George and Julie work closely with local soil scientists and range ecologists to continue learning and refining management practices. Past partnerships include working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the U.S.F.W.S. Baca National Wildlife Refuge to improve wildlife habitat, and maintain water flows in wetlands, and a restoration project with Holistic Management International and the New Mexico State Land Office using cattle to restart biological processes at a former test site of Kirtland Air Force Base. For the past fifteen years they have partnered 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.San Juan Ranch is certified by the National Audubon Society Conservation Ranch Certified Bird-Friendly Habitat program. 



The ranch runs its mother herd, retains ownership of most if not all of the calves and markets them as live animals to other ranches, or moves them into their direct marketing business which sells to local health food stores, individuals, and the local food bank, food hub and schools. The herd is adapted to the steppe environment of the San Luis Valley, thriving at altitude, and ongoing attention to genetics suited to a change climate is part of the ranch’s current practices.

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, 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. They believe 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.

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 since the 1980s, George uses this as a lens and adapts management practices to fit the land and operation under his management. The symbiotic relationship between cattle, grasslands and humans, and the capacity of intact grasslands to store carbon are central to George’s vision and practice as a rancher.George has been deeply involved in sustainable water management for over 30 years and currently serves on the Colorado Agriculture Commission, focusing on soil health initiatives, livelihood issues for all producers, and supporting regenerative practices that build bridges between producers.

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. Julie works with Quivira Coalition NAP as mentor support as well as offering mentor training workshops to other programs in North America.  


Nuts and Bolts


What skills/traits are required in an apprentice?

  • Capable of working both independently as well as in a close team
  • Curiosity about both the HOW and the WHY of land and animal practices
  • Physically comfortable walking/hiking, carrying heavy things, and moving throughout the day.
  • Physically capable of, and willing to commit to, long days and physical labor.
  • Clear communication and ability to ask for help when needed.
  • Reasonable skill with Google Sheets, email, digital record keeping


Ability to manage professional and healthy relationships with co-workers, partners, and neighbors. This apprenticeship is physically, emotionally, and intellectually challenging.  The apprentice and mentors work together closely, and the ranch location is usually the most rural location an apprentice has lived and worked. If accepted, from March to November you will:

  • Work outside 60% of the time, often engaged in monotonous and extremely physical activities.
  • Work 40% of the time learning ranch business skills (quickbooks, certifications, livestock record keeping, marketing)
  • 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.
  • Start your workday between 6:30 am and 8am, depending on the season and schedule. 
  • 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 $1000 a month.
  • Learn a tremendous amount about yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, how a small-scale resilient agriculture operation works, and if a career in agriculture is really for you.    


Skills that you would expect to acquire: 

  • Animal husbandry: health assessments and treatments, calving skills
  • Safe use of equipment on the ranch, including trucks, trailers, atv’s, and tractors.
  • Fencing basics on hard fences and building temporary electric fences. 
  • Pasture planning, including pre and post-grazing assessment to assess when to move livestock, pasture charts, calculating animal days per acre for feed rations, etc.
  • Experience with regenerative grazing concepts & practices, with a focus on soil health
  • Low-stress stockmanship
  • Ecological concepts of disturbance regimes and managing for complexity & resilience
  • Infrastructure maintenance and repair
  • Basic vehicle maintenance 
  • Understanding the basics of a beef business
  • Effective team communication skills 


Stipend: Pay is monthly, calculated at $13.65/hr for a  40 hour week. Housing costs of $400/month and is deducted from the monthly stipend. Payroll taxes per IRS rules are deducted from pay. Payroll runs at the end of each month and can be direct deposited. 

Housing: Housing is provided in either a cabin at headquarters or in the house which also has the ranch office (but is not the mentor’s home). This is located 1 mile from the mentor’s home, on the original Whitten Homestead site.  The cabin has a kitchenette, the HQ house has a full kitchen. Washer and dryer are provided in the housing area. Utilities and internet are provided free of charge, though we ask you to be mindful of the heat usage in winter.  Both the cabin and the HQ house are fully furnished with kitchen supplies, bed linens, etc. 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, medical appointments, etc. he or she should let the mentors know as soon as possible. Additional days off cannot be guaranteed. Be aware that the  ranch and the herd dictate workflow over the course of the apprenticeship. It is usually possible to take consecutive days off once or twice during the season, but this needs to be planned well in advance to accommodate the ranch calendar.

Visitors: We encourage apprentices to have their family and friends visit them. This needs to be discussed in advance, so that the ranch and apprentice can plan how to balance work time and time to focus on visitors.

Food: The ranch will pay for groceries for your workday meals (up to a predetermined amount), and we usually have 1 shared meal per week, at lunch, with the cooking duty rotating through apprentice and mentors. Ranch beef is always available for your personal use as well. 

Pets: In general, no pets are allowed as part of the apprenticeship. If the apprentice has a working dog or horse they wish to bring, this needs to be discussed during the application and interview process.

All the Fun Stuff:

  • We are a NO SMOKING ranch – this means in housing, vehicles, on site.
  • A drink after work is total fine but please no partying or getting drunk 
  • While cannabis is legal in CO, we ask that you not use it on site 

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. If the need arises for an apprentice to use a ranch vehicle for personal needs, this can be discussed and will be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Personal Vehicle: 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.

Services available to apprentice: 

     Laundry: Available in the housing area.

     Internet: WiFi is available in the HQ house, and may also be working periodically in the cabin. 

     Cell Service: Verizon is the best provider.

Living in the San Luis Valley:

  • Grocery shopping: There is a Safeway, City Market and Walmart 1 hr south (Alamosa) and a Safeway, Natural Grocers and Walmart in Salida (1 hr north). Saguache is 13 miles away, has a small grocery store and a health food store open TH – SUN. Crestone, 20 minutes away, has a grocery store and a good health food store. 
  • Dining: Saguache has a diner, a super basic restaurant and a pizza place that is open only a few nights a week.  Crestone has a few restaurants. Del Norte is 40 minutes away and has a great pizza place and a few other restaurants. Alamosa and Salida have many places to eat.
  • Entertainment: Both Alamosa and Salida have small movie theatres, live music, live theatre, coffee shops, bookstores, etc. Saguache has a small movie theatre open FRI- SUN. In the summer there are many weekend festivals, farmers markets, car shows, rodeos, etc. Hiking, biking, rock climbing, fly fishing, river rafting are also available. 
  • Additional items of interest: Crestone is an internationally known center for spiritual communities, with an Ashram, several Buddhist centers, and a Carmelite monastery.

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, 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.

Want to read more?  Here’s our July 2017 New Agrarian Newsletter profile of San Juan Ranch.

Check out more photos of San Juan Ranch here!