When I look at the land around my house, in the large, fertile San Luis Valley at more than 7,500 feet of elevation, I see the natural interaction between plants, soil, and the livestock that graze it. As a fourth-generation rancher, I’ve inherited the knowledge of how to incorporate ecology into range management practices to create natural systems that work best with a diversity of crops and livestock.
Soil, just like plants and animals, is a living organism. It needs to be fed and watered just like people and crops. It’s also a commitment, because natural systems take a long time to work: Manure has to be broken down by insects or weather, then carried deep into the soil by microorganisms so it can feed the plants we and our livestock need to survive.
When I talk to other ag producers in the San Luis Valley, we often discuss how to care for our working lands so we can sustainably feed ourselves while maintaining complex ecosystems that benefit wildlife and the surrounding environment.
I share this commitment to protecting our land and water with so many farmers and ranchers across Colorado. As people who are deeply connected to our land, we understand that the long-term sustainability of soil health — paired with more efficient water use — means less dependence on fossil fuels, fertilizers, and pesticides.
Our resources for a sustainable future, soil and water, are important pieces of the larger conservation puzzle. Soil health practices work with natural systems and are sustainable long term in a way that altering our environment to fit our way of doing things is not.
On my land, I have over 70 different species of plants, some of which might be considered “weeds.” Really they’re just plants that support microorganism diversity, pollinators, and wildlife. They all have a place in a complex ecosystem, and it’s my job to understand how they impact and interact with their environment.
Folks often hear that agriculture produces a large part of climate-change causing emissions, but they don’t always understand how agriculture can be part of a thriving and sustainable landscape. Producers are out on the land every day, with a real commitment to long-term sustainability by using regenerative practices that fortify soil, improve crop yields, and provide nutritious food for our communities.
Relationship building has always been a key to getting things to work well — knowing what your neighbors are doing and figuring out how you can work together to mutually benefit. Our operation partners with potato farmers on nearby land. They raise cover crops that feed the cattle, and our livestock grazes on fallow land to provide natural fertilizer for the next crop production season.
One way Colorado farmers and ranchers have shown their commitment to sustainability is by enrolling in the Saving Tomorrow’s Agriculture Resources (STAR) conservation program, financed by grants from the Colorado Department of Agriculture and operated in partnership with conservation districts across Colorado.
I’m happy to partner with the Mosca Hooper Conservation District, which is helping producers experiment with different cropping techniques and make changes incrementally so they can minimize the financial risks to their operations. The STAR program provides financial and technical assistance to producers to help offset any financial investments while testing out what works on their particular operation.
The STAR program just got a major boost from a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that will dedicate up to $25 million to more than double enrollment in the program, increase research that quantifies the benefits of soil health, and scale the model nationwide. This funding will be a significant resource investment into conservation efforts across the Intermountain West and the rest of the country.
I grew up with sheep and cattle. l remember trailing sheep from the bottom of the San Luis Valley up into the mountains. The local Hispanic community who’d been here for decades sold my grandfather sheep who already knew the route and all we had to do was follow. Managed grazing was part of the tradition then, just as it is now. And while we stopped running sheep in 1969, we still hold “mini migrations,” rotating cattle every day to allow the land maximum rest time.
Farmers and ranchers, whose livelihood is deeply rooted in sustainable land management practices, are at the forefront of battling the effects of climate change. I don’t know if farmers can save the planet, but we understand that by focusing our efforts on stewardship and preserving our natural resources, we can make a positive local impact on the communities where we live.
George Whitten and his wife, Julie Sullivan, own and manage San Juan Ranch, an active cattle operation in Saguache. They helped found the Quivira Coalition’s New Agrarian Program, and have trained more than 17 apprentices on their ranch. Whitten has been a leader of the Rio Grande Water Conservation Board, the Sierra Club and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, and currently serves as a gubernatorial appointee to the Colorado Agricultural Commission.
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