By Anya Kaats
As I sat down to interview George Whitten, founder of Blue Range Ranch on County Road U in Saguache, he told me that we were only 100 feet away from where his grandfather first built a homestead in 1893. George’s grandfather was a pastoralist who ran a herd of sheep above Creede into the Baldies and around Lake City every summer, circling back down into the San Luis Valley (SLV) in the fall. They initially acquired both the herding operation and the sheep from a Hispanic family who lived there before.
George’s father inherited the operation but lost his heart for it in the 1950s and ’60s when it became increasingly difficult for pastoralists to utilize public land for herding. “Our family was here before the Forest Service and the BLM, but eventually it became impossible to migrate through the country like that,” George says. In the mid-1970s, George inherited the operation from his father and has been stewarding his family’s land and business ever since.
In the 1980s, George met Allan Savory, an ecologist and livestock farmer who was teaching about something he called holistic management. George credits Allan for giving him a vocabulary and framework through which to understand and describe the kind of ranching and herding practices that he and his family had been employing for over a century – practices that promoted soil health and biodiversity and allowed them to remain in a symbiotic relationship with both their animals and the land.
“Pastoralists take the world as it comes,” George explains. He rejects the belief that humans have a right to assume a position of dominance over the natural world as is common in industrial agriculture. Instead, George believes that ranching, farming, and herding can all be carried out in a way that “works with the complexity and interrelatedness of all things, instead of working against it, or trying to simplify it.” Ever since his encounter with Allan Savory, George has been a practitioner of holistic management, adapting and changing certain principles over the years to better suit his animals and the specific climate and characteristics of the SLV.
Today, Blue Range Ranch is a certified organic, grass-fed and grass-finished beef operation, with all 120 cows and 14 bulls raised from birth in the SLV. In 2001, George was joined at the ranch by his wife Julie, an interdisciplinary teacher with a master’s in environmental education. Together they have used the ranch to help bridge the divide between agriculture and environmentalism.
Blue Range Ranch, which specifically refers to the ranch’s meat business, hardly encompasses the breadth of the work the Whitten Ranch (also known as the San Juan Ranch) carries out overall, from regenerative land stewardship to local community building, education, native habitat preservation, local job creation, and more.
To process their beef, Blue Range Ranch uses Westcliffe Meats and Salazar Meats, and partners with local farms like the Jones Family Farm, a fourth generation organic potato farm in Hooper, Colorado, that hosts George’s cattle on their land year-round. While the Blue Range Ranch herd helps keep their soil healthy, the Jones Family Farm raises cover crops for Blue Range Ranch to give to their herd before harvest.
Meat is available for purchase year-round by the pound or in bulk and can be purchased from the ranch, local retailers, and the Valley Roots Food Hub. While Blue Range Ranch has sold their meat at a discounted price to the Crestone Food Bank and La Puente in the past, this partnership is reliant upon the food bank’s funding. Please consider purchasing meat to donate to a food bank of your choice.
“People need to understand that when they’re buying our meat, they’re not just paying us, they’re paying a lot of other people,” George emphasizes. Unlike purchasing meat from a large corporation, Blue Range Ranch ensures that your food dollar is being regenerated back into the local economy and used to fund the ecological stewardship that George and his family have carried out in the SLV since the 1890s.
As the Regional Agriculture Commissioner of the State of Colorado, George is also working with the Agriculture Commission to educate farmers in Colorado about regenerative agriculture and sustainable water management. He is optimistic that with ongoing community support and education we’ll be able to slow some of the damage that’s been done to our local aquifer as a result of unsustainable and industrial farming practices that prioritize yield efficiency over water efficiency.
Sam Schmidt currently co-manages Blue Range Ranch with his partner Noelle. Sam and Noelle first heard of the ranch in 2020 through the Quivira Coalition’s New Agrarian program, a nonprofit that partners with ranchers and farmers to offer apprenticeships in regenerative agriculture.
Now in their sixties and seventies, George and Julie are getting ready to hand over the ranch to the next generation, a task Sam and Noelle would be honored to take on. They share George’s belief that done right, “Agriculture could help a lot of people by creating much healthier and more robust, sustainable, local communities.”
“Hopefully we’ve learned and done enough good things that they’re worth carrying on by someone else,” George adds. For Sam and Noelle, they’re looking forward to helping Blue Range Ranch grow and expand into the future, but only insofar as it aligns with the Whitten Family legacy of regenerative land stewardship and “taking the world as it comes.”
To purchase meat from Blue Range Ranch, visit bluerangeranch.com or call 719-655-2003. Also, be sure to catch Blue Range Ranch at the Crestone Energy Fair this fall, and visit their website to learn more about workshops they’re offering this summer. To hear the recorded conversation with George Whitten and Sam Schmidt, listen to Anya Kaat’s latest episode on her podcast, “A Millennial’s Guide to Saving the World.”