San Juan RanchEight-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.
Meet the mentors
Meet the apprentices
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.
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. For the past seven 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.
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.
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.
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 ranch staff and mentoring team also includes Hana Fancher, Foreman-in-Training.
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 rooted in resilient, creative, ecological, real-world 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 2017, we will have successfully trained and graduated ten apprentices and two foremen-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, Paul, and Hana 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.
This apprenticeship is a professional training program for people ready to make a professional commitment to a life in agriculture. It is best suited to a person with at least one to two years of hands-on experience on farms and/or ranches, with lived experience of the challenges and joys of such work. Enthusiasm, physical strength, stamina, and a pro-active eagerness to learn from your mentors are required.
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 apprentices has lived and worked. If accepted, from March to November 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.
- 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 $700 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.
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 or rented housing nearby. Housing location is dependent on season and the location of cattle. 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. Additional days off cannot be guaranteed. 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.
Quivira Coalition Activities: The apprentice is required to attend the spring New Agrarian Program orientation and 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 on Whole Farm/Ranch Planning geared toward new agrarians. 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.
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.
Want to read more? Here’s our July 2017 New Agrarian Newsletter profile of San Juan Ranch.
2018 – 2019 Apprentice
Morgan Atkinson, 2nd Year Apprentice
On the mornings before our weekly team meetings, I run my to-do list for the cattle by our foreman Hana to make sure nothing is falling through the cracks. I am still adjusting to the new and different responsibilities. As I begin my second-year apprenticeship at San Juan Ranch, I am focusing on how to build on the goals I had when I started here a year ago as well as the new ones I have developed. Last year I was exposed to a variety of factors that are required in running a ranch. I learned how to be a competent team member through understanding the task at hand. I learned the basics of pasture planning and management. We spent the summer on a leased ranch that required intensive grazing methods, and I began to feel comfortable with pre and post grazing assessments on the land. I also gained experience in animal husbandry, cattle markets and product pricing, and the overall production timeline.
My overall goal has moved past exposure and into understanding the bigger picture. I want to move beyond the ability to complete a task to the understanding of why that task needs completed. I want to bridge the gap between being able to complete something within a team and being able to complete something independently. I’m excited to think creatively within the goals of the operation and see those daily tasks, such as tracking our weekly priorities regarding the cattle, in a different light as a foreman-in-training.
In my long-term vision, I want to be able to manage a ranch in a way that benefits both the community and the landscape that I choose to be a part of. It is easy to list off the skills I want to gain during this second year apprenticeship, but there is also my larger motivation to consider: what is it that drives me to commit to my ranching education at San Juan Ranch? Why do I love ranching? It is the way a ranching lifestyle can develop your confidence and your decision making ability. I have a tendency to avoid the difficult decisions, but often in ranching, that is not an option. You are allowed to be a part of a relationship between the animals and the land, and you are required to show up and make that decision.
I wanted to stay for a second year because I felt I was only just beginning to gain familiarity with the intricacies of this ranch. Each time I have transitioned between ranches, there is a time period where everything is so new it takes time to actually feel like I am building on my knowledge and skills. By staying here, I can focus on those skills that are important to me and gain the confidence to think more like a manager. It seems that ranching can never become something that is entirely familiar, and the unpredictability is something that I’ve come to love about it. The way that I am required to always stay alert and ready to deal with the unknown even in tasks that I’ve done every day is something that keeps me on this path.The opportunity to gain as much comfort as possible in this operation will lend itself well to the ability to deal with that unpredictability.
Someday I would like to return to Idaho and learn how to bridge my own pursuits in ranching with my family’s grocery store. It is a local and independent grocery store so we rely on the same kind of support local producers do. I would like to build a meaningful connection between what I gain through animal and land management to the grocery store and the community. When I started ranching two years ago, I held no expectation of it developing into a career, but within a few months I had fallen in love with it and couldn’t imagine pursuing anything else. I felt like I opened up an opportunity to connect with the livelihood that supported me growing up with something I was truly passionate about. By educating myself and being an active participant in the world of agriculture as an apprentice at the San Juan Ranch, I am finding ways to further uncover this connection.
Lucy Iselin (first year apprentice)
While certain experiences throughout my life contributed to an ever growing interest in food production and my eventual choice to come to San Juan Ranch through Quivira’s New Agrarian Apprenticeship Program, I realize that much of the depth of my interest in food production, as both a career and lifestyle, stems from studying sociology. Because humans are at the heart of sociology, it is the way they relate and interact to one another, institutions, and their surrounding environments that forms and furthers our understanding of societies. The Introduction to Sociology course I took my freshman year at Kenyon College, in Ohio, introduced me to the concept of the Sociological Imagination, which focuses on the importance of the relationship between personal experience and the realities of wider society. In order to make use of our Sociological Imaginations, we must maintain an awareness of our own immediate experience of day-to-day life. We also need to cultivate the ability to step away from this in order to look at and listen to the lived experiences of separate social phenomena.
Throughout college, I ran as a member of Kenyon’s Cross Country team. Our distance training took us on a variety of loops, connecting Knox County’s back roads with right and left turns. The land that flows over and around the hills is primarily agricultural. In one run, we might pass through various sorts of agricultural terrain; seas of corn and soy managed and governed by dinosaur sized machines, pastures dotted with dairy cows, oscillating bovine tides from weathered wooden barns, rows of vegetable crops plowed by horses with Amish families at the reins. In this way, I ran on the border of certain social realities that became familiar to me in one way and remained distant in others. Running exposed me to agricultural rhythms, their beauty, sense of time, and change. But my hunger for the miles ahead kept me from immersing myself in the _lived_ realities of these varied agricultural communities.
Taking advantage of the courses available to me in the Sociology, Environmental Studies, and even Studio Art departments, I worked to build different lenses and perspectives with which to process the world around me. In doing this work, I began to understand myself within my own contexts, the how and why of my own growth and realities. Towards the end of my collegiate career, my coursework began to push me outside of these realities, encouraging a use of my Sociological Imagination as peers and I tackled larger and more foreign issues of social stratification and environmental ethics.
I spent the spring semester of 2015 studying in Northern Tanzania. With my program, I studied wildlife management and political ecology and completed an independent study regarding agricultural practices and how agricultural knowledge has changed over three generations in a village below the entrance to Mount Kilimanjaro National Park. The distance from known contexts of home and country pushed me to be intentional and proactive within unfamiliar political, social, and geographic contexts. I returned to the United States with a depth of perspective concerning topics I felt were important not only to my own future, but the future of our nation’s food systems and natural spaces.
The use of one’s Sociological Imagination encourages a certain type of systems thinking, a holistic framework. This holism allowed me to understand certain social inequalities in their entirety, a perspective that was echoed in ways when I tackled certain tasks at Fox Hollow Farm. A Sustainable Agriculture course connected me with Fox Hollow Farm, where two generations of an ever-growing family owned and managed a diversified farm designed with Permaculture principles. Fox Hollow viewed itself as both a business and as a community. As a business they worked to provide quality food to the local community while maintaining and encouraging healthy ecological communities through this production. As a community they committed to certain social goals, predominantly that of educating eager college students about the choices and processes that can make an agricultural operation sustainable. Each task I tackled at Fox Hollow required an understanding of the intention, purpose, and ramifications behind each component within the operation’s and the ecology’s larger mission. To understand context was to see the way forward, moving beyond the shortsightedness common throughout our society, toward a lived reality of sustainability.
My environmental and sociological education throughout college helped me to build an understanding of myself as an individual. I began to understand my own contexts; my family history, from founding fathers to Jewish refugees, my educational and social privilege, all the things that it can mean to be a woman, my enduring love for wild and natural spaces, among others. I put together a toolkit to process the world around me; social, political, and environmental. I learned to paint and kept a journal. I went on long runs and climbed trees. I sat in circles, talked with peers, learned to listen deeply and read thoroughly. And although this work was necessary in order to fully understand the contexts from which I am rooted, in order to fully use my Sociological Imagination, I must be able to step away from those realities, and immerse myself in the realities of others, in order to fully understand them. The holism stressed throughout Quivira’s New Agrarian Apprenticeship Program was the magnetic force that initially drew me towards this opportunity. San Juan Ranch, in business, personnel, and mission, exemplifies growth rooted in an understanding of contexts. By using Holistic Management principles and practices, each decision and action on the ranch is motivated by and checked against economic, social, and ecological goals. I have a deep appreciation and respect for the holism invested in each moment here at San Juan Ranch. San Juan Ranch functions in a way that does not idealize nor romanticize the production of the sustainable and local food that has come to hold popular attention and desire. They understand that the production of sustainable and healthy food must integrate into a larger, national food system, but they refuse to sacrifice values or a continued healthy relationship with the land in order to grow. Here, cattle are raised to heal and work with the land, to feed neighbors and strangers, and to earn a living. San Juan Ranch is deeply aware of its contexts and actively uses these contexts to move towards a future that allows for the continued practice of ranching. Due to growing up primarily in the eastern United States, ranching in the arid west requires a far different mindset than my previous agricultural experience. The tradition, history, and ecological conditions of ranching are therefore new terrain for me, allowing me to step completely away from the contexts I was previously familiar with, and into the lived reality of the ranching communities of the San Luis Valley. San Juan Ranch, due to its compassionate individuals and through its partnership with the Quivira Coalition’s NAP, has created an environment in which I am pushed to live each day intentionally and learn from each moment, an exercise in the active use of my Sociological Imagination.
Occasionally, I too can tend to romanticize a life lived in the pursuit of a sustainable food system. I believe that a more sustainable food system, established upon holistic perspectives, can lead to healthier communities; healthier bodies, healthier interpersonal relationships, healthier economies, and a healthy environment. Because this romance is rooted in the physical and emotional experiences I have had participating in this food system, I hold onto hope for the continued growth of the sustainable food system. This opportunity to educate myself and illuminate my understanding of the production of sustainable food through this program will help to build a sturdy foundation underneath this flighty romance. This program encourages education of the mind, body, and soul. I cannot deny that my participation in the New Agrarian Program is a selfish act. I hope to grow as a person, both because of the knowledge I gain and the impact of the lived experience. But when I step back, I understand that in being an apprentice at San Juan Ranch, I am working to understand my role in the larger social phenomena.
Paul Neubauer (second year apprentice)
I grew up in the Parkside neighborhood of Buffalo, New York. Though designed by Frederick Law Olmstead as the first suburb to the city in the late 1800s, my neighborhood now sits squarely in the heart urban Buffalo. I did not grow up with summer trips to my grandparents farm in the country. My upbringing was distinctly urban, and more so, distinctly separated from agriculture.
The story of Buffalo is a tale crucial to how I view my future in agriculture. With a population of roughly 300,000 urban residents, my city still encompasses the same volume of land it did in 1950 when it had 1,000,000 residents. Economic decline and that peculiar brand of subliminal Northern racism called white flight precipitated the massive decline. With failing infrastructure and a meagre taxbase, many citizens of the city live in poverty and with minimal social support. As a consequence, substandard housing and food deserts abound in Buffalo. A food desert is a place where fresh, healthy produce is unavailable. Inadequate public transportation and a lack of private transportation, in addition to the increased expense of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and other largely unprocessed foods means that many of the impoverished citizens of Buffalo have very poor nutrition.
In my brief time working in agriculture I have worked entirely in the sustainable realm, laboring with farmers and farm managers who believe in growing high quality food naturally and sometimes as in the case of San Juan Ranch, organically. Substantial markup afforded to organic products in the grocery store allows sustainable and organic agriculture to be economically viable. If you make less than $30,000 per year, have to pay $3 for a round trip bus ticket just to get to a grocery store with fresh produce, and are responsible for feeding a family, the chances are low that you are willing to pay $5 for a half gallon of organic milk, or $8 dollars for a pound of organic ground beef. Your other option is to feed your family heavily processed, heavily corn-dependent food. I think that sucks. Every individual, no matter where they live or what their economic status has the right to eat healthy, affordable food produced in a sustainable manner and which contributes to the health of our soil and our bodies.
My work here at San Juan ranch spans the intersection of my beliefs concerning the right of all people to access healthy food and my love of agriculture. My journey to the agrarian life I live now began when I was 17. I didn’t do well in highschool and my mother encouraged me to take time off from school before going to college. During my gap year, I spent several months on my uncle’s cow-calf operation in central Tennessee. My uncle is the only person in my family involved in agriculture. He raises Charolais and Angus cross cattle as a retirement hobby. While my time at his ranch was not the monumental experience it might have been, I was exposed to cattle and to the engaging mixture of discipline, caretaking, self sufficiency, and creativity that is involved in raising livestock.
In the next year I attended Warren Wilson College (WWC), in the Swannanoa Valley of Western North Carolina, where all students are required to work fifteen hours a week on a crew as part of the curriculum. Among many different crews, WWC has a diversified livestock operation consisting of cattle, sheep, swine and poultry. The farm runs an intensive rotational grazing plan, grows corn, barley and hay for animal feed, and operates a small fleet of tractors, tillage and harvesting equipment. It took me a year and a half to figure out I wanted to try agriculture again, but once I joined the farm crew I dedicated myself fullbore and found it to be a life changing opportunity. Immediately I learned how to run and maintain the tractors and equipment, handle the stock, and practice quality, productive animal husbandry, while also developing close working relationships with my peers.
For the next two and a half years all of my free time and a great deal of what should have been my class time, I worked on and learned from the farm. My work also included teaching as the more experienced crew members actively pass on their skills and experience to new students.
In my time at the WWC farm I worked two summer internships with different crews of five other students. In these internships I learned what it means to immerse oneself fully in an agricultural operation. Together, my fellow workers and I endured long days of great successes and great frustrations in equal measure–the pain of losing animals you try to save, and an unparalleled sense of completion that comes from cultivating corn on a tractor for three days straight traveling at .5 MPH in blistering sun and humidity (you honestly begin to see cornrows in your sleep, and much more in a nightmarish way than an idyllic agrarian dream way). I have never felt more fulfilled in my work than when I have spent my entire day outside, worked in concert with my teammates, saw to the short term needs of hundreds and thousands of animals, while considering the long term health of the land and the agrarians invested in it.
I heard about the San Juan Ranch through the WWC farm. Former apprentice, and my current foreman, Martha Skelley is also a WWC farm crew alum and we share many of the same beautiful and formative experiences. However, the WWC farm is an operation financially supported by an educational institution. Despite the many real life, real consequence lessons I learned there, I seek the knowledge and experiences necessary to pursue agriculture as a lifestyle and a successful, independent business. I am committed to an intentional, restorative and community-centered life as an agrarian.
Everything offered by the ranch, George and Julie’s wealth of knowledge and experience, and the community of likeminded individuals at Quivira are in line with my goals. I am privileged to enjoy the support and encouragement of a family who wants me to pursue my passions, no matter how distant from their own, or how little experience they have with my work. My parents dedication to living and loving their city and community in Buffalo lives on in my undying loyalty to my birthplace. More importantly, I want to work as a representative of, and contributor to that section of my community, which is often overlooked and to whom the fruits of gentrification and New Agrarianism seem unlikely to fall.