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2014 Shalini Karra

2014 Apprentice

As I gaze across the sprawling valley and rest my eyes upon the snow-capped mountain range, I cannot help but feel immense gratitude towards the fortuitous events that have led me to this breathtaking view that I get to wake up to every morning. My recent journey into the agricultural world was, by no means, pre-planned and caught me completely by surprise in the most wonderful way.

Growing up in Ventura County, California I was surrounded by orchards, vegetable and fruit plantations, but I never once considered being a part of that world. When we were young, my sister and I fell in love with Shadow, the beloved golden retriever from the Disney classic "Homeward Bound". Thus began my life-long love affair with the animal world as my family welcomed our own golden retriever, Sonna, into our home.

As a kindergartener, my dream was to be a veterinarian who moonlighted as an astronaut. Predictably, as I grew older I shed these aspirations for ones that seemed more pragmatic. A key leadership role in my high school's Future Business Leaders of America chapter led me to apply for Political Science and Business Management majors in college, with the ultimate goal of earning an MBA. However, after ten boring weeks of easy coursework, I was ready for a change. A friend of mine was a pre-vet Animal Science student, and in my free time I found myself nose-deep in her notes and textbooks. Once I realized that a career in the animal world was a viable option, I switched as quickly as I could and have not looked back since.

With my sights set on veterinary school, my curriculum consisted primarily of science courses, with the notable exceptions of Professor Rob Rutherford's sheep management, lambing enterprise and holistic management courses. They were my introduction to the joys of raising livestock as well as the intricacies of proper land management. The discussions I had with Professor Rutherford were pivotal in my journey to the world of agriculture, though I did not realize the extent of their impact at the time.

While working in a small animal vet clinic, the politics of modern veterinary medicine made it clear to me that I wanted to work with large and exotic animals. At the same time I became fascinated by reproduction and the various biotechnologies associated with this discipline of agricultural sciences. I decided to specialize in theriogenology, the branch of veterinary medicine concerned with reproduction. As my college graduation approached, my plan was to earn a Master's degree in Animal Reproductive Physiology before applying to veterinary school. Not only was the subject of great interest to me, but the expertise would have given me a leg up in a fiercely competitive group of prospective veterinary students.

Since most of the graduate programs I was considering involved livestock, I decided to take a year to WWOOF (Worldwide Working Opportunities on Organic Farms) to gain the work experience I lacked with large animals. So I packed my love of sheep, a childhood obsession with Riverdance, and my bags and boarded an Aer Lingus flight headed to Dublin, Ireland.

During my nine months immersed in a beautiful country and culture, I fell completely and irrevocably in love with farm life. One rare sunny Irish day, I had to clean out a pen after a sow and her eleven piglets had been living there for a couple months. Whilst shoveling out the knee-deep pig manure and rocking out to music blaring from my Ipod, I realized that there was nowhere else I wanted to be.

Unexpectedly and quite rapidly, I developed a deep sense of belonging in the agricultural world. I found myself taking advantage of the opportunities that WWOOFing provided and working well beyond the required hours as a volunteer. Not once, even on the grey bleary days that can plague the country, did I wake up dreading my work, mainly because it never felt like work. It was a life that I truly and thoroughly enjoyed.

Despite my newfound bliss, I was frustrated to no end when I surmised that the Irish government dismally underrates its organic agricultural sector. After seeing how unappreciated benefits to the health of the land, animals and people that organics offer, I brought my frustrations back home with me to California where it spurred me to convince my family to support local organic farms and to build waist-high garden boxes to grow their own vegetables with ease.

I felt very unsettled upon my return once I realized that my plans to go to graduate school had lost their appeal. While I know that theriogenology would have been a field that I enjoyed, I could not ignore the lure of an industry that I feel so passionate about. I began seeking out internships and jobs in the sustainable animal agriculture world that would position me to one day claim ownership of my own sustainable farm.

After coming across the description for the San Juan Ranch on the Quivira Coalition website, I knew that this was my key to becoming an integral part of the sustainable agriculture world. Though I found the website through Google, I was reminded of those formative conversations with Professor Rutherford about the importance of proper land stewardship, conversations in which he often referred to the Quivira Coalition as a pioneer group for the future of sustainability. Seeing the hits on a simple Google search exposed interests that I had put aside in my pursuit of a DVM.

What struck me most about this apprenticeship is that it is geared towards young adults such as myself - those without an agricultural background but with aspirations to be a part of a world that is dominated by those who grew up in it. At my first visit, the warmth with which George and Julie welcomed me solidified my desire to grow and learn with them as my mentors. Their vast knowledge of leading a holistically managed life that brings together their love of the land and animals greatly inspires me. I am confident that I will gain a fantastic education in animal husbandry, preservation and promotion of biodiversity, and whole ranch management. The skills and life experience I will gain during the course of my seasonal apprenticeship will ultimately help me achieve my dream of owning and operating a ranch that benefits the land and community while nurturing symbiotic, beneficial relationships between many different species of organisms.