I am lucky. For example, on an overcast Tuesday in July I was cruisin’ north, windows cracked and dog in the back seat, to tour the Orient Land Trust’s Everson Ranch. This one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old heritage ranch has been modernized using historical facades for buildings to bring together an educational and working agricultural facility highlighting sustainable agriculture. In 2004 the Orient Land Trust (OLT), acquired 760 acres bordered on the north and south by public lands and valued at $850,000. Years ago, according to their website, Valley View Hot Springs/OLT owners Terry and Neil Seitz “knew that the resources of the northern San Luis Valley (SLV) and specifically the environs surrounding Valley View were simply too valuable to be owned by any one person.” OLT members all contributed to extend the area the Trust preserves in a wide band from Valley View Hot Springs uphill in the east and the Everson Ranch on County Rd. 61 in the west. What’s happening there made me feel optimistic about the future!
Ranch Managers Mike and Cherrye O’Donal gave me an informative tour of the ranch, highlighting projects including holistic grazing, permaculture principles, riparian corridors and pasture restoration. “We use simple methods bridging past to future.” Cherrye said. The ranch homesteaded in 1872 was, Cherrye told me, “one of the largest in the SLV. When first founded it went all the way to the hot springs.” Over the ensuing years the ranch fell on hard times, and then the OLT bought it. Mike said, “Four years ago the fields were dirt with tumbleweeds because the water was not going onto the fields.” When the water source of the hot springs was unleashed on the land it began to bloom with life. The springs, Mike says, “Are the source of everything and power everything.”
The ranch is home to domestic livestock: Large Black Hogs, Boer Nubian Goats, and various sorts of chickens live in crossed-fenced areas close to the ranch house and gardens. Cross-fencing allows the animals to be rotated from one fenced field to another, which enriches the land, whereas overgrazing depletes the soil. Cherrye explained that “. . . the animals work together in a harmonious system.” For example the Large Black Hogs are a heritage breed that nearly became extinct because they took two years to fatten up for meat. That is considerably longer than it takes other breeds of swine to reach slaughter size. They also have smaller litters then other hogs. But they do not sunburn and their ears protect their eyes and keep them focused on the field they are grazing and turning while revitalizing the earth under their hooves. Mike explained, “We plant a green cover crop in the spring and bring in the pigs in the fall to stir it up.”
Then there’s the poultry that, through the judicious use of a mobile chicken tractor, spread their poop as fertilizer on the fields. The Boer Nubian Goats are a cross between the Boer Goats from southern Africa that are raised for meat, and the Nubian Goats from southern Europe and northern Africa that produce more milk fat than other breeds. They frolic in a field shaded by Cottonwoods, unaware that they are fertilizing. Cherrye said the three beehives near the ranch house will “produce enough honey in a year to sell some of it.”
Next we went out see the fields and pond east of the ranch buildings. The pond was created to bring back a riparian or bird corridor utilizing ditches and other waterways. The water all comes from the Valley View springs to the east. As we approach the pond a Blue Heron who had been fishing there took off. Mike and Cherrye told me they see all sorts of raptors out by the pond, including Golden Eagles and Red Tail Hawks. They said the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) helped fund the wetlands at the ranch. A conservation easement through the ranch is part of the agreement with the NRCS and FWS. According to OLT Executive Manager, Doug Bishop, “Conservation easements offer tax credits to landowners which don’t help us because we are a non-profit.”
Mike told me, “Meanders in ditches and creeks make excellent bird and fish habitats.” Two endangered fish, the endemic Rio Grande Chub and Rio Grande Sucker, were brought in and are coming back in the wetlands. Cherrye said the beautiful pond will be the site of a wedding later in the summer.
The hay produced on the ranch Mike said is “mostly alfalfa and grass to feed the livestock through the winter.” Arrow Point Cattle Company leases a portion of the ranch to graze their Scottish Highland Cattle. “The lease” Mike said, “is paid in beef.” Everson Ranch has a permit from the BLM for pasture grazing. Including all property owned and leased by the Everson Ranch, the ranch is a steward for two thousand two hundred acres. Mike pointed out that, “Ranching is not understood in today’s urban world, but laws are easing up to enable small farmers and ranchers to make a living.” According to Doug Bishop, “More landowners are looking at leasing their land for cattle grazing.”
The ranch, Cherrye said, “has a half-acre garden that gets bigger year by year.” The garden has efficient underground irrigation and two hoop green houses which long-time local Slim Wolf helped construct to hold up to SLV winds and weather. As we near the garden I can see local young people Marlon Jacobi and Rosalea Anderson bent over weeding, laughing and talking as they work. They are able to leave the weeding and visit for a few minutes before taking off in the truck to buck the neat small hay bales waiting in the fields to be picked up from the first cutting of the season.
Education is a big part of the OLT mission, Manager Mark Jacobi told me as we sat on stump stools around an amazing table Mike has made out of a giant old cottonwood. Another SLV heritage rancher near Major Creek, Ben Eiseman, a “big supporter of OLT and ranch heritage,” funded a program for high school kids to learn rural job skills. Addressing what Mark calls “the disconnection from how our food is sourced” and what it takes to produce it, this internship program pays kids to work four days a week for eight hours a day. Tasks are normal ranch/farm work including watering, weeding, fencing, and digging post holes for fences and a pole barn.
Both Marlon and Rosalea, who wanted to work outside for the summer, were chosen for the intern jobs based on essays they wrote on their future plans and how they would use the money they were paid. Rosalea said, “I wanted to learn more about animals, gardening and the value of manual labor in order to respect other people’s jobs.” Marlon, who has a “passion to perform,” is “trying to get a wide spectrum experience on how people work.” He finds there “are barriers you are forced to break to get through the day, psychological and physical barriers.” Roselea pointed out, “you can feel isolated in Crestone. I want to see how this valley works.” Mark said “this internship shows kids what work is like and to make sure you have done an honest day’s work. This sort of work includes the use of hands and brain.” For example, if you are walking out to weed the garden and see the goat water is empty you stop and fill it, being aware of the bigger picture while being task-oriented.
The Eiseman Grant also funds an internship at the hot springs. The OLT, with the help of a Saguache County Sales Tax Grant, holds a summer science camp for kids. This year it was July 7-13. A music camp will be held August 7-23. Giving back to the community is a big part of the mission the OLT takes on; as Cherrye said, “OLT has a mindset to make a difference in the Valley.”
The OLT is working, Mark told me, for the ranch to have “more interchange with the hot springs, with a focus on education and recreation. In addition to the fireflies living and glowing near the warm water and the ever-popular bat cave near the hot springs, the dark skies in the SLV make it ideal for astronomy enthusiasts. Valley View has equipment and a special round pad for celestial viewing. The ranch hosts interested Valley View visitors, tourists and SLV locals, and itinerant “woofers” who trade room and board for work. The beautiful adobe and stucco ranch headquarters lined with blue-streaked beetle-kill pine, built by Mike, is one of the only new buildings on the ranch. It reminds me of a Dine Hogan. It holds a shower/bathroom and a shared kitchen. One of the greatest parts of this is that its fuel needs are met using a methane generator!
Mark showed me around the methane generator located across a driveway from the headquarters building. The system the ranch is using was brought to the SLV from China by alternative energy expert Nick Chambers. Mark explained that the two round insulated concrete vaults next to each other in a trench are where the waste becomes methane gas. He explained how the tanks work: “It’s like an underground bottle . . . an inverted funnel” in which methane replaces water. The gas is distributed to heat water and provide for the cooking needs of twenty people. Next to the trench and the hot water panels is what looks like a gas grill but, when you flip back the lid you will find a Chinese methane range cook top.
With all the good food, a large cottonwood picnic table next to a lush lawn, farm-to-table meals at the ranch are a regular event. The farm-to-table movement is about, Cherrye explained, “connecting folks with where their food comes from and to join the food revolution.” Meals are crafted from ranch-raised beef, pork, or goat, vegetables from the garden, and other handcrafted foods. After a meal, Mike told me, “We go on a tour of the place and tell people: that’s what you just ate.”
If you are interested in a meal or ranch tour you can check it out on the Everson Ranch Facebook page. A second annual Harvest Dinner is scheduled for September 13.