The Crestone Eagle, August 2003:

Pam & Steve Gripp: Living the homestead dream

by Mary Lowers

We live on the eastern slope of one of the highest agricultural valley in the world. Farming and ranching traditions go back centuries in the San Luis Valley. In the San Juan Mountains, west of here, ancient stores of corn were found in sealed pottery jars in remote ancient kivas. Family farming here, like everywhere else in the country, is a challenge physically and financially. Many folks in the Valley pursue this lifestyle with an almost spiritual fever.

Pam and Steve Gripp own a pretty little farm along Rd. T, with artisan well water coming up at 68 degrees, a small wetlands swamp, and views that go on forever. The Gripps have a herd of registered dairy goats, horses and poultry. A pond toward the back of their nearly 100 acres is teeming with goldfish, of all things! A few years ago Steve put a couple of goldfish in the warm water pond and forgot about them, and lo and behold they were fruitful and multiplied—multiplied and multiplied some more.

Both Pam and Steve, who met, married and raised children in Crestone, come from agricultural backgrounds. Proud to be farming, Pam, who is diminutive in stature, says, “I’d rather be a tall farmer than a small farmer.” For years the Gripps have also worked other jobs: Steve has been a mechanic in Alamosa and most recently in Denver, and Pam runs our own Crestone Baca Ambulance. These jobs help to support their farming habit.

I sometimes help the Gripps out on the farm. The amount of work Pam and Steve do daily, in addition to their full-time off the farm jobs, astounds me. Watering, throwing hay, bottle feeding babies in season, putting poultry out or in, milking ten goats, and straining and pasteurizing the milk takes from 1-3 hours. And the ritual happens twice daily, if nothing unexpected happens, like an early labor for a goat, an escape from pens, or a kicked-over milk bucket in the barn. You gotta love it to do it!

Steve’s family was in the sheep business near Del Norte on the western side of the Valley. His grandfather ran a flock of 4000 sheep. Before World War II, sheep were more prevalent than cattle in the Valley. Having grown up with sheep, herding and grazing them with experienced Mexican hired hands, Steve says, “Sheep are born to find a place to die.” I agree with him—sheep are not rocket scientists. Often when you see sheep out to pasture, you will see a goat or two grazing with them for protection. This is because the goat will sense trouble long before the peacefully grazing sheep.

Pam also comes from a large and small animal background. Pam ran a family dairy farm with her first husband’s family in the Durango area. They raised their own hay and milked forty-five Holstein cows two times a day. As is often the case in the “new west”, new big vacation homes raised the tax base in the Durango area and the dairy farm went the way of many small agricultural operations. As Pam says, “We were priced out of the market. We couldn’t afford it.”

While in the Durango area, Pam, who has always worked with animals, became a Colorado certified veterinary technician under the tutelage of our local vet, Marty Shellabarger, who was then practicing in Durango. At the time Pam became a vet tech, Colorado was allowing people who had been working with veterinarians to challenge the Colorado exam. Those who had no formal degree or education could pass a test to become state certified. With her knowledge and perseverance, and with Marty’s help and encouragement, Pam became one of the only people in the entire state to pass the state vet tech exam!

Back on the Crestone farm, this certification allows Pam to diagnose and treat the Gripps’ livestock for many things without the expense of calling in the vet. Both Pam and Steve are grateful to have a good large and small animal vet like Marty Shellabarger in the area.

Pam and Steve began their farm because, as Pam pointed out, “I wanted to know where my food came from.” Both the Gripps were farm people, but they got involved with goats through Pamela Bertin, a Crestone resident who now lives on the Western Slope. Pamela, who had milk goats, kept tempting the Gripps to try the milk. “Come on. It doesn’t taste bad.” To please their friend they tried the milk and, lo and behold, they liked it. They liked the goats, too. Pam says, in terms of dairy animals, goats are smaller and smarter than cows. When they tread on your foot, it hurts a lot less than a cow stomp. Goats are easier to clean up after, too. Their poop is like deer poop—little round balls—and, by comparison, we have all seen the legendary cow pie!

Steve says that before they got into goats, their experience with the animal was that “they were obnoxious and too smart for their own good.” However, the one, backyard, lawn mower goat is not really the same as a herd of goats. Goats can get into lots of trouble. The more goats, the more they amuse each other, and the less trouble they get into. As Steve says, “Good fencing makes for good animals.”

The Gripps’ herd includes thirty goats. They have one buck, or billy, goat and are milking ten does currently. Milking is done with a two goat milking machine in a warm milking parlor off the barn. Pasteurization is done in the kitchen, with two large pasteurizers. Out of forty-six kids born into the flock this year, many ended up at the livestock sale barn. Goats are often bought to help raise motherless animals, as goat milk works nutritionally for almost every species. Six of this year’s kid crop were sold for pack goats and bucks. One doeling went for a 4-H project animal.

Pam and Steve love their herd. “They are happy creatures,” Pam says, “calm and peaceful.” The Gripps are interested in promoting all parts of the goat—from milk, to cheese, to fudge, to meat and hides. Pam and Steve say the goat meat market is expanding. Many buyers from ethnic markets go to Texas to purchase meat goats in large numbers. If you have ever driven through west Texas, you can see huge herds of goats.

The Gripps are hoping for a Grade A Goat Dairy in the Crestone area. They have worked for nearly a decade with various community members and groups to promote a dairy and cheese plant. They are hoping the current surge of sustainability plans around economic development will help make this dream a reality.

In addition to the goats, the Gripps have a variety of poultry, including geese, that live by the wetlands, a pair of peacocks, guinea fowl and chickens. “The chickens are the only ones who pay their way,” laughs Pam, referring to egg production. The Gripps have four horses, including a new addition—a miniature horse known as Thelma. Louise is the burro that lives with the goats to keep coyotes away.

Two Great Pyrenees dogs—Andre, the giant dog, and his side kick, Rowdy—and Pooh Bear, a small black Schipperke, are also enlisted to protect the livestock. Pam told me, “There’s a coyote pack nearby, and they have even been seen drinking from the stock tank with our dogs. But they never have gotten an animal or bird.” The Gripps don’t shoot these coyotes, because they live in balance with the farm and its residents. If these coyotes left and a new pack came in, they might not be as friendly. But the only violent stock death the family has experienced at the farm was a horse that was shot by hunters, shooting illegally, who mistook the horse for an elk.

After spending time with Pam, Steve and their animals, all I can add is to quote an old poem, “It’s alarming how charming it is to be a farming!”