Sustainability and cattle ranching aren’t typically thought of as going hand in hand, especially in desert regions. But a small group of friends has been practicing sustainable cattle ranching near Tucson, Arizona, since the late 1980s.
The group is called Saguaro Juniper Corporation– named for the unique combination of saguaro cactus and juniper trees they found in the San Pedro River Valley, where the group now owns and leases hundreds of acres of land, according to Tom Orum, a founding member of Saguaro Juniper.
“Saguaro Juniper is really a tale of one thing leading to another,” Orum said. “It’s evolved over time.”
The group that eventually became Saguaro Juniper started out as a goat-milking cooperative in 1978 and was heavily involved with the sanctuary movement to protect Central American refugees fleeing genocides in their home countries.
One continuous thread through all these stories, and eventually into the establishment of Saguaro Juniper, was a Harvard-educated philosopher, writer and rancher from Casper, Wyoming, named Jim Corbett. Corbett, who helped found the sanctuary movement, was a driving energy behind the “goat and garden group,” a goat-milking cooperative and early iteration of Saguaro Juniper, and a founding and philosophically influential member of the group, according to Orum.
Respect for land and conservation
Saguaro Juniper is unlike other cattle ranching operations because of the way its members understand their relationship with the land and its other occupants. They believe the land has rights, and sees their cattle operation as a way to interact respectfully with, and in some cases, improve the quality of the land.
“The central theme of Saguaro Juniper has been embodied in the covenant,” Orum said. “That’s caring for the land and having a human presence active on the land at the same time.”
The covenant he’s talking about is a document that governs Saguaro Juniper’s decision-making. It lays out a set of five principles:
“1. The land has a right to be free of human activity that accelerates erosion.
2. Native plants and animals on the land have a right to life with a minimum of human disturbance.
3. The land has the right to evolve its own character from its own elements without scarring from construction or the importation of foreign objects dominating the scene.
4. The land has a pre-eminent right to the preservation of its unique and or rare constituents and features.
5. The land, its waters, rock, and minerals, its plants and animals, and their fruits and harvest have a right never to be rented, sold, extracted, or exported as mere commodities.”
Saguaro Juniper is located along the San Pedro River, which is one of the last large undammed rivers in the Southwest and one of only two major rivers that flow north from Mexico into the United States. The San Pedro provides critical habitat for millions of migrating birds each year and is home to 84 species of mammals, 14 fish species and 41 reptile and amphibian species, according to the Nature Conservancy.
“That’s a major interest among members of SJ is the wildlife and the land,” Orum said. “Another theme is the interest in animals and what animals, particularly our cows, can teach us about the land.”
Sustainable cattle ranching
“The idea is that we want the cattle to be on the range when they can be a positive aspect of that,” said Nancy Ferguson, a wildlife biologist and founding member of Saguaro Juniper. “Our current understanding is that we’ve got grasses that grow mainly in the summertime and produce seeds, so the idea is not to have the cows there when the grass is growing rapidly and producing seeds because that’s when you can wipe out grasses.”
For that reason, the group doesn’t allow their cattle to graze on the range during the summertime. Instead, they let the cows graze a plot of land with Bermuda grass through the summer months.
They also prevent the cows from grazing in sensitive riparian areas, which tend to be more adversely affected by grazing than other areas, Ferguson said.
They’ve used trend plots – plots of land that they monitor for vegetation over time – in order to see how their cattle operation has changed the land. Orum said that, in general, the land and natural vegetation has improved since they began monitoring in the late 1990s with the help of the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
Saguaro Juniper sells beef in quarters or halves of cows. “I couldn’t; sell you a pound of hamburger,” Ferguson said. The animals are brought to a family packinghouse in Willcox, where they’re slaughtered and trucked in a refrigerated vehicle to Tucson every two weeks.
Orum said that the group currently has three animals that they’re looking to sell in May.
When asked about the connections between the sanctuary movement and Saguaro Juniper, Orum said that Corbett’s philosophy of community permeated both.
“It’s not the acts of individuals but the acts of community that are important. That was very true in the Sanctuary movement,” Orum said. “What that means is that you get a mosaic of interests.”
Saguaro Juniper’s land is held collectively by the shareholders and all decisions are made collectively.
“You get one person who might be most interested in the cows and another person interested mostly in the land and the creatures on it and so forth,” Orum said. “So that there’s a mosaic of approaches.”