Looking to restore a healthier, more sustainable balance and a stronger, more direct connection between agriculture, society, economics and environmental conservation, George Whitten and Julie Sullivan are among the growing number of ranchers and farmers striving to work out and put into practice their own custom tailored brand of sustainable agriculture.
A husband and wife team, Whitten and Sullivan drive, graze and manage a growing herd of grass-fed, organic-certified cattle with a head count that now numbers close to 450 across a nearly 14,500-acre mix of private and public lands high up in Colorado’s San Luis Valley.
Motivated by an infectious natural inquisitiveness, a love of nature and an inclination to educate themselves as well as participate in effecting broad, positive, progressive societal change– as well by ecological and economic necessity– Whitten and Sullivan are proponents of their own still evolving formulation of sustainable agricultural principles and practices, one that is rooted in their own long and varied experiences and the influences of a broad and varied range of researcher-practitioners that not only believe that there is a better, more sustainable way to develop and manage agricultural resources, but that doing so has become a socio-economic and environmental imperative.
Finding a path that links, nature, agriculture, producers and consumers
At 8,000-plus feet above sea level, the Whitten Ranch is located in an area where, in the main, what has come to be conventional wisdom and standard agricultural policy, teaching and practice in the U.S. is the rule. It’s a system based on mass market oriented, factory-scale farming and livestock rearing, a mindset and methodology that is also actively promoted and exported to developing countries around the world.
Geared towards mass production of a narrow range of food crops, meat and poultry products that can fill distribution pipelines designed to transport, market and sell them in mostly distant locations, and directed towards viewing the application of new equipment, chemical and biological agents, genetically modified crops and technology as the solution to any and all problems, it relies on large-scale monoculture and the intensive use of fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Whitten and Sullivan are among a growing population of ranchers and farmers that, based on first-hand experience, are convinced that there’s a much better way to go. Citing as inspiration the work of a variety of seminal sustainable agriculture researcher-practitioners that includes Aldo Leopold, Allan Savory, Alan Nation, Courtney White and “Omnivore’s Dilemma” author Michael Pollan, they live and work the Whitten Ranch based on a “holistic” perspective and decision-making process that is centered on a thorough analysis of how almost every decision they make impacts the triple bottom line.
Whitten and Sullivan have long been considered, and remain, largely outside the mainstream, both in their own community and, more broadly speaking, with respect to the conventional wisdom and views espoused and propagated by large, well-funded and organized agriculture industry interests and academia.
That’s changing, and with growing speed, however, as environmental degradation and rising energy costs, along with their own success in managing the land they work and the livestock they raise, is attracting attention from a growing variety of fellow ranchers and farmers. Support is also coming as a result of a broader public trend towards making socially and environmentally conscious purchasing and consumption decisions and re-establishing closer, more direct links between wildlife habitat, agriculture, food production and consumption and the people that produce and consume the food we eat.