Hutchinson Finds More Freedom with Ranch in Conservation Easement
by Ann Marie Swan
Ranchers occupy a unique place in the world of fashion, with their big black hats, leather belts, and chaps, wearing it all with a certain swagger. When Salida-area rancher Abby Hutchinson saddles up to move cows, her long golden hair spilling out of her ball cap, she doesn’t fit that stereotypical cowgirl look. She does, though, have that swagger.
That swagger comes from knowing her way around a ranch from a very young age. Sixth-generation rancher Hutchinson grew up in Mesa Verde National Park with her parents, U.S. National Park Service employees, but spent childhood summers at her grandparents’ ranch between Salida and Poncha Springs. Oftentimes, she accompanied Dr. Wendell Hutchinson to check on cows or make veterinary calls all hours of the night.
He called her A.B., which sounded more like a boy’s name than Abby, more like a future rancher. And she dressed the part, cutting her hair short when she was about 7 years old. “I really loved it,” she said.
After graduating Colorado State University in Fort Collins with a degree in animal science in 2005, Abby Hutchinson returned to the family ranch to put up hay. She did this for about a year before heading back to Fort Collins, then to Wyoming to work on a huge cattle and horse ranch. In Wyoming, on someone else’s ranch, Hutchinson had the epiphany of settling on her own family’s ranch. And she’s never looked back.
One strong reason for coming home was to be near her beloved grandpa. Hutchinson said she wanted to show him “someone is willing to carry it on.” While Hutchinson was away, it was a question that had remained unanswered. “Coming home gave my family, grandpa, and the community an answer to the ranch’s future,” she said.
Like all ranchers, Hutchinson’s days are long. On this morning, she was up when the skies were still dark to check on a newborn dwarf calf. “I didn’t know if it would live,” she said. (It did.)
Hutchinson then went to work at her job as a preschool teacher as she does during the school year. In the afternoon she was back at the ranch. It’s calving season, her favorite, with new babies arriving, needing a lot of attention. She checks on them at midnight and hires a hand for the 3 a.m. shift. “It’s the start of a whole new process,” Hutchinson said.
Her least favorite chore on the ranch is putting up hay. It’s not even the hay, but the long hours upon hours sitting on a tractor and dealing with expensive machinery when it breaks. “I’m not a mechanic,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson gets up from our conversation to tend to her grandpa, who is suffering this day with an earache. A caregiver checks in with Hutchinson about the plan of action. The granddaughter green-lights the strategy, adding a suggestion to reposition her grandpa’ s pillow to make him more comfortable.
“I haven’t thought of changing professions,” she said. “I bought a house nearby. I’m fully committed to doing the same things my great, great uncles did.”
Hutchinson’s roots run deep in this more than 800-acre patch of ground that straddles U.S. Highway 50. The Hutchinson family first settled in the Upper Arkansas Valley in 1867. Their ranching operation grew to 5,000 head of cattle that ranged from the San Luis Valley to South Park, and from Leadville to Westcliffe. Ranch succession through the generations with different relatives taking the lead at different times is a model of hanging onto heritage.
As a kid, Abby and her sister, Erin, and their two best friends spent the night in great, great Uncle Art’s cabin. They mopped the floors and lit a fire to make the cabin inhabitable. The girls then piled together onto a queen bed, giggling into the night. Before restoration, the nearby Old House was filled with junk and mice droppings, ratcheting up the creepy factor. The likelihood of ghosts floating through the Old House dominated pillow talk.
Just as the sun peeked over the mountains, the sleep-challenged girls caught their horses in the pasture, jumped bales and ditches, and rode until they couldn’t anymore, collapsing in hunger at Hutchinson’s grandparents’ table.
Wendell Hutchinson donated the historic Hutchinson homestead, built in 1872, and its outbuildings to the Town of Poncha Springs in 2003 for the public’s benefit. The ranch house, or Old House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a learning center focused on heritage and ranching and farming practices. Salida-area Parks Open Space and Trails, or SPOT, played a major role at Hutchinson Home-
stead, raising funds for three phases of preservation work and building the visitors center.
Part of the grounds is leased to Guidestone for its summer education program, Farmhands. Farmhands offers hands-on, experiential farm and ranch-based educational opportunities to children and families. Children learn through exploration and play, and develop an understanding of where those pulled-pork sandwiches down the road originated. Hutchinson calls Guidestone an asset, with its positive, forward-thinking educational approach. “It’s awesome to get those little kids out here,” she said.
Wendell Hutchinson and his children Andy, Lisa, and Art, Abby Hutchinson’s dad, further protected the remaining ranch acreage. In partnership with multiple organizations, including the Land Trust of the Upper Arkansas, the Trust for Public Land and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, the Hutchinson ranch is protected in perpetuity by a conservation easement.
Hutchinson said the conservation easement on the ranch “made it so you can keep pouring your heart and soul into it and have something to show for it, rather than the uncertainty of land sales.” The easement gave the family a nest egg and enabled them to keep ranching. But it was unclear exactly what came next.
New, diversified ventures on the ranch can be inconvenient but, ultimately, bring more financial freedom. Hutchinson is expanding into local, grass-fed beef. A barn and pastures are rented for weddings and parties in summer and seasonal festivals. And she’s open to partnerships with novice farmers.
Seeing mobs of strangers and their vehicles on the ranch can, at times, feel uncomfortable for Hutchinson. It’s a quantum leap for longtime ranchers to get their heads around the idea of occasionally opening their property to the public. But sustainability is the larger issue, and Hutchinson appreciates this. Over the years, the Hutchinson family has withstood tremendous pressure to sell to developers. Her values shape her vision. And she deals with what’s in front of her.
Overall, Hutchinson said, “I’m pretty lucky.”
The Hutchinsons are also cooperating with the Land Trust and its partner Collegiate Peaks Anglers Chapter of Trout Unlimited in restoring and protecting the section of the South Arkansas River that flows through the ranch. This restoration effort will improve the wildlife habitat and water quality of the river.
The family’s ongoing work has not gone unnoticed. The Land Trust presented its 2013 Conservationist Award to the Hutchinson family for outstanding leadership, selfless dedication and commitment to protecting the natural, historical and agricultural resources.
Hutchinson said she’s especially grateful for her huge network of support, her extended family and friends. They often step up and help where it’s needed. Former employee and family friend Danny Wood gave her advice on many things related to ranching. Wood was instrumental in her decision to remain ranching, which is intrinsic to the historic, economic and social fabric of the community. One day while working on a water tank together, Wood made a crack about how Hutchinson could do this the rest of her life. She took this comment to heart.
Hutchinson’s ideal day isn’t too far off from when she was a girl. She’d spend it on her bay horse Sailor in the fall under aspens, gathering cattle and moving them up Marshall Pass, where she has a U.S. Forest Service grazing lease. She also has a Bureau of Land Management grazing lease in the San Luis valley between Villa Grove and Saguache. Being a good steward of public land is just as important to Hutchinson as caring for private land. “We’ re trying to work the land, so the land will work for us,” she said.
Professionally, Hutchinson’s strategy is working, with her tenacity and love of the land driving it all. Personally, she hopes to one day raise a family on this ranch, creating memories in a story that is still being written. Maybe they’ll add another generation, and more chapters, to the Hutchinson family’s legacy of sustainable ranching in the Upper Arkansas Valley.