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, 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
The San Juan Ranch is a certified organic, one hundred percent grass-fed, grass-finished cattle ranch. George and Julie run a cow-calf to finish operation with approximately 150 mother cows at this time. Calving occurs in the spring months (mid-March to early June). 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. Cattle finish at approximately sixteen to twenty-eight months and are sold both wholesale through Panorama, a wholesale aggregator for organic beef, Sweet Grass Cooperative, a production and marketing co-op of small, sustainable ranchers co-founded by George and Julie, and direct to local customers.
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 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 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.
Sam Schmidt and Noelle McDonough, Staff and NAP Graduates
Sam Schmidt and Noelle McDonough are New York City-area natives who came to the NAP program and the San Luis Valley through a deep desire to participate in and learn about regenerative ranching in the arid West. Sam began his agricultural career as a whole animal butcher in New York City, and worked at multi-species and grass fed beef finishing operations before his NAP apprenticeship. Noelle came from a culinary background, with a deep interest in food and environmental justice. Her career has involved work on permaculture farms in Hawaii, goat dairies in Wisconsin, and as a whole-animal butcher in New York. As second year apprentices, Sam and Noelle are excited to continue to build upon their first-year experiences, particularly in regards to stockmanship and work with horses and dogs. They also look forward to diving into creating new avenues for marketing the ranch’s beef, becoming more involved in local ag policy work, developing skills for managing a ranch business, and mentoring a new apprentice!
Nuts and Bolts
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 fall of 2021, we will have successfully trained and graduated fifteen apprentices including five forepersons-in-training, as well as many interns prior to starting NAP.
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 also be involved with the direct beef marketing enterprise and the ranch Airbnb and Harvest Host programs.
The apprentice will work closely with George, Julie, Noelle and Sam 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; recordkeeping for certifications (organic, humane animal handling, Audubon),CattleMax records, marketing our beef, and 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 two to three 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. Mechanical aptitude and horsemanship skills are a plus. 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 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, with the possibility of additional time off
- Receive a stipend of approximately $800 a month, plus room and partial board.
- 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 $800/month take-home pay, but may be increased based on experience. 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 trailers on site at the ranch or the family farmhouse located approximately 20 minutes from Headquarters. 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. Internet is provided at the ranch house and is also accessible in the Blue Lagoon trailer.
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: The apprentice will have one 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. In 2020, Covid-19 made it impossible to host overnight guests in the farm house, and depending on how Covid unfolds in 2022, this may be true again.
Food: The apprentice will receive partial board in the form of a midday meal on workdays, which is a group responsibility. In addition, the apprentice has access to the ranch’s beef for personal use. 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.
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: 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. 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: 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.
Services available to apprentice:
- Washing and Drying: A washer is available for use, either in the farmhouse or headquarters, depending on where the apprentice is living, all drying is done on a clothesline.
- Internet: Internet is available in all housing at all times.
- Phone Service: Verizon is the best cell carrier in the San Luis Valley, other carriers offer only spotty coverage. There is currently no landline in the farmhouse. The headquarters phone is also available as needed.
- Housing includes bedding, dishes, cooking pots and pans, utensils, etc. but if an apprentice wishes to bring their own items, especially things to decorate their room or make themselves comfortable, this is perfectly ok.
Living in the San Luis Valley: The San Juan Ranch is a fifteen minute drive from the small town of Saguache, Colorado, which has a post office, a diner, a coffee house, a movie theatre that runs year-round on weekends, and a small grocery store. There are two larger towns an hour drive away, Salida, Colorado to the north, and Alamosa, Colorado to the south. Both have music venues, large grocery stores, bookstores, many coffee shops and restaurants. The Valley is a steppe biome, a high-altitude grassland similar to the Tibetan plateau. The climate is arid, with summer highs of 90 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.
COVID – 19: It is more than likely that we will be still living with COVID-19 in our communities during the 2022 season. Covid-19 proves to be an ongoing and fluid impact on our ranch and life. As a team, we will discuss our protocol for how we will interact with others, allow visitors to the ranch and housing, whether or not we feel comfortable with one another having visitors, getting haircuts, traveling, and any other issue that could either infect the apprentice or mentor, or bring the virus into the team. Discussions will happen regularly as conditions improve or worsen, so we are all clear on our shared protocol.
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!
“While I don’t really believe anyone is ever 100% prepared for whatever their next steps in life or work may be. I feel that this apprenticeship has demonstrated and solidified that the combination of being a lifelong learner and always striving to be better each day will go a long way in preparing anyone for their next steps. The highlight of my year here at San Juan ranch can be summed up by being able to spend time with great people.” – Excerpt from the New Agrarian Voices Blog
Sam Schmidt, Apprentice
“My becoming involved in agriculture began with the hard realization that the assumptions I had made about my life’s trajectory were wrong. I had just finished a one-and-a-half-year stint at a large corporate law firm in New York City as a paralegal after graduating college, with the intention of continuing on to law school. However, rather than confirming this life path, my time in law had the opposite effect. Rethinking my professional plans, I was able to examine what it was that mattered to me, that I was passionate about. The answer to these existential questions wasn’t too long in occurring to me: food. One day after work, I found myself walking in to a whole-animal butcher shop close to my mom’s apartment, asking for a job. Two weeks later, I had quit my job at the law firm and begun my tenure as a butcher’s apprentice.” – Excerpt from the New Agrarian Voices Blog
Noelle Mcdonough, Apprentice
“After my eight month apprenticeship at San Juan I expect to have more confidence in my understanding of the fundamentals of holistic management and how to apply them to an operation. I have no doubt that ranching and regenerative agriculture is where I belong, but having a better grasp of where I am going and how to get there is what I hope for after this apprenticeship. I am so incredible grateful to be in my current position, and to have gained mentors that are constantly growing and evolving themselves. I want to provide this experience and education to other people who, like me, have felt stuck and unsure. I want to pass forward the excitement of finding your place, putting down roots and starting the journey of thriving within regenerative agriculture.” – Excerpt from the New Agrarian Voices Blog
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.”- Excerpt from New Agrarian Voices Blog