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2015 Courtney Hurst

2015 Apprentice

CHurst Photo
Because I grew up in suburban Denver, my family's annual or semi-annual visits to my grandfather's cattle ranch could NEVER come quick enough or last long enough for me. I soaked up every minute of these visits and they instilled in me a very deep longing to be a part of an agricultural life. One generation removed from "the farm," I was the lucky suburban kid who knew how to drive a tractor from the time I was ten or eleven (when I was tall enough to reach the tractor clutch and brakes), had bottle fed several calves, including blind "Chico", and who worked very hard at being my grandfather's shadow every chance I got. I would follow him, trying to learn as much as I possible about how to work around livestock, run equipment and do daily ranch chores. Through this shared love of the outdoors and ranching, he taught me his land ethic and helped shape mine. His vision of agriculture and land stewardship was simple, "If you take care of the land, it will take care of you."

My experiences on his ranch set the stage for my professional pursuits in natural resource management and land management. Prior to applying to the New Agrarian Program (NAP) apprenticeship, I enjoyed a variety of professional experiences in both of these fields. After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis with degrees in Archaeology and Environmental Studies, I worked all over the West as an archaeologist, including as a backcountry archaeologist at Mesa Verde National Park. After five years of archaeology, I returned to school to pursue my Masters of Natural Resource Stewardship at Colorado State University, which I completed in 2006. With this degree I was employed by natural resource companies, environmental consulting companies and non-profit conservation organizations.

Most recently, I was the Stewardship Director for the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) located in Del Norte, CO. While with RiGHT, I worked closely with landowners both on securing conservation easements on their land, as well as learning from them their short- and long-term vision for managing their land. As Stewardship Director, it was my job to understand how landowners were managing their property and how their management fostered the conservation values, such as agricultural production or wildlife, which were the focus of the conservation easement. Through this process, I was given some insight into the thought processes that informed their management decisions.

However, my deep-seated childhood desire to work and live on a ranch has never left me. Instead, over the last five years, I've actively worked towards developing an agricultural skill set through various ranching opportunities, in the hopes of someday being able to manage my own cattle operation. These efforts include my job with RiGHT, which allowed me to combine my love of conservation and working with those who make ranching their livelihood, as well as a few part-time positions on ranches in northwest Colorado, and some weekend ranch work in the San Luis Valley.

Through these experiences, I have come to realize that as valuable as my time spent with my grandfather on his ranch was, I was not yet old enough or had experienced enough agriculture to ask the important questions so that I could understand how to run my own cattle operation. Under my grandfather's careful direction, I learned a lot of the how-to of daily ranch management, but not the land management philosophy which guided his decisions. I had started to ask him these "why" and "what-for" questions just before his passing in 2001.

Finding the New Agrarian Program (NAP) with its apprenticeship on the San Juan Ranch was the next important step in my progress towards developing the skills and knowledge to manage my own sustainable cattle operation someday. The NAP apprenticeship is exactly what I have been looking for since my grandfather's passing, not only to continue the education started by him, but also to connect me with the sustainable ranching community and begin the process of building relationships within it. For me, most importantly, the NAP apprenticeship is the chance to learn how to ranch with a focus on maintaining natural resource values and by extension important ecosystem processes, thereby continuing and honoring my grandfather's vision of taking care of the land.

The management of my family's Texas ranch is currently under an agricultural lease arrangement. It is my hope and goal that the NAP experience, in addition to my previous experiences and education, will put me on the path to someday managing this ranch. Ultimately, I would like to continue my conservation work with an off-ranch job, all the while running a small (but successful!) cattle operation. The unique and rare opportunity given by the NAP apprenticeship is an educational experience not easily found anywhere, and I cannot wait to see where it leads!!