The McNeil Family
For their leadership in protecting Colorado's threatened ranchland from sprawling development and their commitment to sound conservation practices, ranchers Mike and Cathy McNeil were named the winners of American Farmland Trust's $10,000 Steward of the Land Award for 2001.
The McNeils were selected from more than 75 farmers and ranchers from 35 states as best personifying the ideals embraced by AFT's mission: to stop the loss of productive farmland and to promote farming practices that lead to a healthy environment.
The McNeil family has been ranching for over 100 years in the fertile Rock Creek drainage, one of the last undeveloped stream corridors in the entire 8,000 square mile San Luis Valley. To keep it that way, the McNeils spearheaded the Rock Creek Heritage Project, a landowner-driven effort to protect 15,000 acres of farm and ranch land in the Rock Creek watershed. The multi-faceted project, which involves 27 landowners, includes land protection, watershed enhancement, training in holistic management, community building, and support for value-added marketing of agricultural products.
The McNeils view all five components as critical to ensuring the future of agriculture in the Rock Creek watershed. As a first step to protecting their own land, the McNeils will protect 280 acres of their ranch with a conservation easement this year.
"A society measures its wealth by the amount of land it has and its ability to feed its population," said Cathy McNeil. "That's why protecting our land is important for future generations."
As part of the Rock Creek Heritage Project, the McNeils offer classes in holistic management, a system of land use, cattle management, financial planning and employee participation that involves evaluating every action for its impact on the land, finances and people. For example, the McNeils adopted a June-July calving schedule on their ranch to allow their 800 mother cows to graze in warmer temperatures during calving, lactating and rebreeding, as opposed to the winter calving schedule used by most ranchers in the area. Their forage management is enhanced by innovative methods of piling, which makes winter feeding easier and is helpful to their herd and to wildlife from the neighboring Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge.
"Using holistic management has greatly affected our personal philosophies and land stewardship," said Mike McNeil. "It has enabled us to see much larger pictures and think holistically in every realm of our lives. We now see ourselves more as grass farmers than cattle ranchers, realizing that we are harvesting sunlight in the grass we grow, and the cattle are simply the tool we use to convert the grass into cash income."
The McNeils understand that ranching needs to remain economically viable in order to survive. Over the last 10 years, they have increased their herd by 30 percent while cutting their annual operating expenses by 20 percent, or approximately $60,000 per year.
"Low commodity prices are a major threat to agriculture in the San Luis Valley," said Cathy McNeil. "We envision staving off this threat by offering classes in holistic management, so that agricultural producers can find ways to be profitable even with low commodity prices, and to care for the health of their land at the same time, so that it can be productive for the long term. We also are looking at ways to add value to products, and do direct marketing, cooperatives and niche marketing."
The McNeils live in Monte Vista, Colorado, with their daughter Kelly. In addition to their ranching activities, the McNeils are active in the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, the Rio Grande and Piedra Valley Ditch Company, Friends of the Refuge, the Rio Grande Soil Conservation District Board and the San Luis Valley Wetlands Area Committee.