2014 Samantha Bradford2014 Apprentice
A quintessential tomboy from my earliest childhood memories--most of my time was spent scouring the ditches near the house for crawfish or investigating the number of hurricane felled trees in the outer horse pastures, I always yearned to be outside exploring. It was where I felt the most at home. I have been fortunate that opportunities I have had over my lifetime lead me to ranching and that the impact of a natural disaster brought the importance of sustainability to my work.
My journey began with camping. My mother started a Girl Scout troop for my twin sister, friends and me, and a Boy Scout troop for my brother and his friends. Although my mother worked very hard to make sure both girls' and boys' camping trips shared the vast majority of experiences, the same was not so for the council-run camps. After walking around for a day at the local Boy Scout camp where my brother would spend a week swamping canoes, shooting skeet at the shotgun range, holding a groundhog snake and talking with the naturalist about it, Sis and I were loathe to leave for our weeklong Girl Scout Camp. As you might expect I did not take well to the overabundance of craft time and lack of outdoor activities. I'm not sure what exactly did it, but somewhere between the counselors not understanding when Sis and I swamped a canoe and turned it back upright to rescuing a multitude of reptilian wildlife including a Hognose snake from screaming shovel-wielding counselors, I knew Girl Scouts was not for me. Soon after, likeminded friends and I began a Venture Crew (the coed faction of the BSA), which led me to Philmont Scout Ranch. The BSA owned High Adventure Base Ranch with over 300,000 acres in Northern New Mexico. This is where the spark for ranching was fueled.
Over my four years working with the Ranch Department at Philmont I felt myself growing not only in my horsemanship but also in the way I perceived myself. At the beginning of my first year I was still not very confident around horses, having been somewhat intimidated by them even at home. But after that year, things I had initially approached with apprehension such as bridling and shoeing I now took in stride. Each new horse taught me the importance of having an eye for body language. That the ranch boasted a herd of close to 300 gave me more than a large selection of individuals to work with. As my confidence in my skills improved, so too did my confidence in myself. At the end of my first year one of the bosses remarked to me that when I first showed up he was not sure how I was going to do, but that I had grown into someone they could count on. That was the boost I needed to cement that I could do it.
In the following three years I worked my way up to a Cavalcade Horseman. This position gave me more responsibility in the form of a string of 30 horses for the entire season and the management of the weeklong horseback treks. Most notably it allowed me to go on the spring cattle drive up into the mountain pasture... my first real one-on-one experience working with the cows. Watching Rod Taylor, the cowboy-musician but for me Boss, and the other experienced cowboys and horseman move the cattle from the open plain up the boulder-strewn and Ponderosa Pine-filled Crater Trail (the cow trail up the ridge) into the Bonita meadow where they sorted out the pairs, I appreciated the difference between Hollywood's interpretation of cattle work and what was unfolding before me. The relative quietness of the experience also reminded me that I had much to learn.
Another part of my learning experience came from one of my favorite ranch chores: delivering hay and grain to the backcountry. In part because I really enjoy the aroma of the alfalfa and the dance of bucking the bales from the trailer overhead into the hay feeders, but more because it gave me an hour or two each way to talk with another boss, Chuck. Listening to stories of things he had seen on the ranch over the years and how much the change in climate had impacted the ranch since he first came out in the early 1970s. The latter came to be one of the concerns we talked about the most. From the loss of perennial streams over the years, the increasing dryness of the vegetation and subsequent ever-increasing fire danger, to the differences over time in the winter precipitation yield it was not difficult to see the effects of drought in the landscape. I had known that drought was a natural disturbance, but one that I had not experienced firsthand growing up. On the coast, our natural disturbances were of a wetter variety.
Growing up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast I looked forward to hurricanes. To me they meant a few days of camp lanterns lighting the house, cookouts with family and friends before the power went out, sitting on the porch watching the wind and the rain, searching in the horseyard for baby squirrels and raccoons blown out of their nests to bring inside until the winds faded, playing in the flooded street after the rain stopped and walking down Coleman Avenue when the winds died down to see how high the water came up. Typically the only signs that a storm had passed through were a few downed trees, marsh grasses covering the beaches and a part of the road, and generally more water in ditches, along roads, and puddled in yards. In 2005 a storm named Katrina changed all of that.
The combination of wind and surge served to alter the landscape to such a degree that calling it a major disturbance does not quite do the experience justice. It is a very odd thing to watch over 14 feet of water and high winds change the landscape you have grown up with to something nearly unrecognizable. The tall pines and many of the oaks that were such a beloved part of my home landscape were gone, along with all but a few of the man-made structures. The trees that remained had been broken into sharp angry shapes. In the years that followed many of the trees that survived the initial onslaught succumbed to their injuries. The horseyard pastures, which before boasted a healthy mix of pines, gum trees, oaks, open grassy areas and clumps of bushes, had turned into a disheveled mud land as we cleaned out debris to try and make it a safe environment for our animals.
As time passed and one of our pastures remained fenced off from the others due to the volume of unreachable debris, I was able to observe the shift in land health. The area that was fenced off showed a boast of regrowth with small pines, magnolias and oaks but it was very dense with thorn bushes with little grass. The pasture the horses grazed while we cleared other fields was in stark contrast to the area across the fence. The soil had become impacted and many of the younger trees had died. The grasses appeared in pockets. Where on one side of the fence the soil had a moist rich brownish black color, the other side was primarily sand and clay. After several years the differences in these two areas--one with livestock and another without--made me wonder: Where was the middle ground? How could one find the balance where livestock serve to enhance and be partnered to the plant life in the environment instead of harming the vivaciousness of the plants and slowly turning the land into a sandbox?
George and Julie's skill in utilizing livestock to revitalize the land was one of the first things that caught my attention at the San Juan Ranch. I had heard of Holistic Management, but I had not seen the plan in practice first-hand. Ranching in a manner that is sustainable and can leave the land in better health for the future is something that I see as essential in my own life and for the future of ranching. The skills I will acquire and experiences I will have throughout my apprenticeship here at the San Juan are part of the first and irreplaceable steps towards my goal to eventually invest in land that is in duress and bring it back to a healthy if not productive state. Just as my confidence around horses grew during my time working with them--developing an eye for their moods and body language--so too will my confidence grow throughout my apprenticeship as I develop an eye for reading the range and understanding its mood by season and body language. Along with the other skills I will develop during my year, developing my eye to read the landscape is the one I hope will grow the most. Even if I can identify that there is something amiss early on, even if I do not know yet what it is, I am one step closer to a solution. Every day presents another opportunity for something to learn. Already I have experienced how to weigh and vaccinate the cows, what to look for in their early stages of labor and how to tag a calf. And George and Julie's many stories and in-depth experiences that will undoubtedly assist me during the year. Only two weeks in and as much as I have experienced I know it is just the tip of the iceberg.