George Whitten and Julie Sullivan own and operate the San Juan Ranch in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. The Valley is known for the crops it produces – potatoes, head lettuce, wheat, and barley – and for the struggles to save and maintain the aquifer that supports the farms and ranches.
In this 9:14 video, George and Julie talk about their philosophy of land management and their work to become sustainable in a very challenging environment. The Valley gets 7 to 10 inches of precipitation a year, so catching and using every drop counts. On their ranch, they’ve adjusted their management to do just that. But it’s also meant working with their neighbors on how to use and protect the aquifer. San Luis Valley leaders have estimated that low stream and river flows and falling water tables may lead to the dry-up of 100,000 irrigated acres, a fifth of the farmland in a valley where residents depend economically and culturally on growing food. Water use also impacts wildlife like the sandhill cranes who stop in the Valley on their spring and fall migrations, and the people downstream who rely on the Rio Grande river for drinking water and agriculture.
It’s a big lift for the small community, and that’s why I thought this was an especially good story to share on Thanksgiving week. It reminds us of the importance of understanding our landscape, and how we all have to work together to survive and prosper. I especially like the final points George and Julie make at the end of the video.
Julie: I always had thought that you either had sort of a sacred and esthetic relationship with the natural world, or a utilitarian. And I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that you can have both and rather either or.
George: We’re almost at 8,000 feet about 85 days of growing season and after that it starts to freeze and its a very harsh, windy bitter, cold environment.
Julie taught for an environmental education class and they picked up the book, “The Last Ranch.” Through that they decided they’d get a hold of me and somehow I decided it was ok to have them come. I didn’t really know who they were and she drove into the ranch on the bus that’s how we met.
Julie: I arrived at the ranch at the age of 44 died in the wool environmentalist, anti-cattle vegetarian person, and saw that there were ranchers who had this deep profound relationship with the land and their animals. which was something that I didn’t think existed. And I’ve been here for 17 years.
George: That’s how we came together because what she brought was that environmental ethic side which fed my soul really. All my life I’ve really been interested in environmental things and I didn’t really know even the word environmentalist I don’t think. I didn’t really know what that meant.
And we use the livestock to fertilize our hay and our feed for the sheep and the cattle, and that’s the way I learned to do and that’s the way we still do today. And that’s why I wound up being organic because that’s the way we did things. What we’re trying to do is evolve from where we are into what we would consider sustainable. So understanding that biodiversity of soil and the plants and the microorganisms that live in the soil is so important because there’s a relationships going on there all the time and it’s the relationship that we need to understand.
We live in a dry place and that’s kind of one of our unfair advantages in that I noticed that hay when it was left out was about the same as hay in the stack, it was just out in the field. So we came home and did about 80 acres [of swathing] and tested it out, and after that I got rid of my baler and everything else. So we cut the hay with the windrower and we rake it up with an old dump rake and pull it up into these piles. All of everything you see here came from the soil. We cut it and plow it we’re running it through that rumen and putting it back. This hay is still fairly green and its also, you can see the broadleafs, there’s a lot of vetch and clover, so there’s a little bit of everything in this. So in that diversity, there’s protein and there’s carbohydrates, and there’s all the things a cow needs on a given day.
Leroy Salazar, Rancher, Salazar Farms, San Luis, Colorado: We practice water conservation in the design and management of our irrigation systems, and so basically, as people became more efficient, there was more land that could be put into production. But as a consequence you return less water into the aquifer.
George: Most places don’t even recognize the connection between ground water and surface water and don’t want to. And it tends to stop development.
Julie: We have phenomenal water storing capacity in our soils and in the grasslands that are under our management. If you can find a practice a management practice that allows you to work with natural systems, you’re making money by not spending money. And that’s one of the few controls you actually have in agriculture.
Leroy Salazar: George and Julie really are models for soil and water conservation and all it’s aspects. they have been real bridge builders between different counties.
George: Those water issues have brought together environmentalists and farmers and ranchers. We fight with each other when we don’t have anybody else to fight with. But when somebody shows up to take water, and man, it’s just like kicking a beehive. We’re going to be on it.
Julie: George has actually always loved talking about what he’s learning. Not just what he knows, but what he’s curious about.
George: Julie and I have put a lot of effort into bringing young people into this operation who are interested in it but don’t normally have access. They weren’t born on a farm, they didn’t marry into a farm, they have no way to get back on to the land.
Julie: George and I started the apprenticeship programs I think for a couple of reasons. And one that desire to not just do this for ourselves. To want it to have a life beyond us. They give us a lot of hope.
Julie: The bank balance isn’t necessarily the one that’s most important to us, but we have to pay attention to it. Because if you can’t make a living doing this, eventually you’re going to have to sell out and in a lot of the inter-mountain west what ends up happening is that land goes out of agriculture.
Leroy: There’s ways to do both, to do conservation and to maintain an economically viable ag system. It’s just a delicate balance.
George: Money is just the way that we exchange value between people. How much of that you have doesn’t measure your success. What does measures it is the quality of the people in your life and the quality of your life and the quality of your soil. So we’re very rich in that way.
Julie: We just have to keep finding more and more ways to try to step back from our own story and hear the other person’s story. And that’s hard to do because if there story doesn’t agree with yours you start to feel attacked. Even if that’s not the intention. And we’ve got to get past that somehow.
George and Julie have succeeded in reducing aquifer depletion while increasing the diversity and vigor of irrigated meadows and uplands. Their land has maintained a consistent level of productivity in times of severe drought due to decades of careful attention to soil porosity, plant composition and soil cover.
As part of their commitment to the next generation, George and Julie have hosted 16 apprentices since 2006, over 90% of whom continue to work in regenerative ranching and range management. Julie works with the Quivira Coalition’s New Agrarian program to hire apprentices and to provide training to those interested in working with the next generation. Here’s the first article in a five-part series about internships/apprenticeships, based on Julie’s experience.
George and Julie’s stewardship has restored and increased healthy biological processes while providing for a sustainable ranching model. By recognizing the important relationship between social, environmental and economic values, the San Juan Ranch has contributed to a sound and peaceful rural community along with the health of its surrounding landscape.
The video is dedicated to George’s grandfather, William E. Whitten, who settled on this land in 1897 and learned to marry stewardship and stockmanship.