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2012 Martha Skelley

2012 Apprentice

Over the past couple months I have been mulling over a phrase --Land Advocate. How can I become a land advocate? Is this my calling? My image of a land advocate is someone who strives for an intimate relationship with the land, goes out and observes changes in the land, and reminds others of their connection with the land. I want to ask folks one simple question: "How did you interact with land, soil, and plants today?" I hope this question is thought-provoking. Maybe not at the moment it is asked, but as they move forward in time, they will recall this simple question. Perhaps they will feel called to their gardens, fields, and wilderness in a new way.

My interaction with land and soil started with the place I grew up --the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. This large valley was filled with just the right resources and people to nurture my interest in environmental studies. My childhood brought me up-close and personal with the creatures that roamed in my backyard woods and excited my curiosity in biology. This drive to know what was in my backyard--and later the entire valley--grew as I got older.

My growing passion for soil began in high school. As a member of the Envirothon team, I was introduced to basic soil science and land-use, as well as forestry, aquatic ecosystems, and wildlife; I chose to specialize in soils. Here I developed an appreciation for the earth beneath my feet. This vital substance that is so often abused and viewed as a lifeless medium became my focus throughout high school and my first years of college. Along the way, I was encouraged by teachers to research and to delve into the subject.

I found myself one hot August morning in my backyard attempting to dig a soil pit (which my mother was convinced the neighbors would think was a grave), and after a morning of digging, found myself no further than five inches into the ground. I wondered why the soil was so compacted and dead looking; what was missing? There was grass growing over the top and it was not a well-travelled area. The steadfast compaction I observed confused me, but it boiled down to the type of soil. It was high in clay and low in organic matter, and on that August day its small compacted pores held little water, making the earth hard as concrete. Though the pit never materialized, I found myself wondering about the physical and chemical make-up of all types of soils. At Massanutten Regional Governor's School I was allowed to create my own year-long research projects. I focused on soil and grasses during my time there. Some mornings were spent in the cool North Fork of the Shenandoah River monitoring water quality, while other days were spent observing nodules on the roots of soybean plants in a farmer's field. My teacher, Cathy Hughes, taught agro-ecology, and helped me understand the connection between soil science and agronomy.

I found myself interested in an alternative college experience, not a land-grant education. I discovered Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. My experience at Warren Wilson expanded my interest in environmental studies, but it also ignited my consciousness surrounding sustainable land management. At Warren Wilson each student participates in the Triad program, which interconnects academic, work, and service learning. Students are not only engaged in an academic course of study, but they also work for the college on campus work crews while finding avenues to serve the greater community beyond the campus. I worked as a member of the Warren Wilson College Farm for two and half years and gained firsthand experience with cattle, swine, poultry, and direct marketing. I had the opportunity to apply my studies readily to my daily work, and spent much of my free time talking "ag" with others. My friends and I lived and breathed the rhythm of the college farm. As a summer intern, I experienced for the first time the inner-workings of a farmer's life. It was no longer just chores and "do-the-work-expected-from-you." Daily chores needed to be done, but the farm's success required every student to invest more fully, to make a conscious effort to understand every detail. It was learning how to revive a sick animal or to decide whether to end its pain and life. It was watching the corn grow and cover the bare soil. It was moving cattle to a new paddock of fresh grass each day. It was camaraderie of like-minded individuals pursuing the same objectives: to nurture the land and animals.

At this point, I knew land management was something I wanted to pursue. I wanted to know the details behind each operation and the management decisions that were likely to be made. I wanted to go out and improve agricultural land and communities, and to remind folks of where their food came from. I was drawn to how animals could be used to improve soil quality and provide healthy food. I was a cattle crewmember for a year and half and later student crew boss before graduating. I learned a great deal about myself while working with livestock, and how important it is to respect their lives and, later, sacrifice. I decided to major in environmental studies with a concentration in sustainable agriculture and a minor in chemistry, and after graduation, I found myself wanting to pursue a potential career in land management.

The New Agrarian Program apprenticeship is another step forward towards becoming a land manager and land advocate. I feel called from the east to see what sustainable ranching holds and find connections between sustainable farming and ranching. Industrial farming has removed much of its self-sufficiency by choosing not to incorporate animals into their crop rotations. I want to mend the biological disconnect and see where ranching can take me as an advocate and manager.

I am here in Colorado with a love for hard work and a drive to have an intimate connection between the soil life beneath my feet, and with the ultimate goal to learn how to use cattle to feed that beautiful complex thing called soil. Today, I am pursuing to become a land advocate here the San Luis Valley. I will be touched by a new landscape, one I hope to get to know intimately, learning from those who have watched the land change. I will take their stories along with me as I move on to a new place and cultivate a new connection with a new community and landscape.