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2015 Martha Skelley

2015 Foreman In-training

When I made up my mind to come back West, many of my friends and family asked why. Often they wondered why I wanted to leave the populous East for the isolated San Luis Valley. While many of my friends and family focused on the isolation factor of working out West, I wondered why I wanted to leave the verdant valleys of Virginia for the high desert again. One of the many reasons I was drawn back to San Juan Ranch was the network of people I had built and continued to stay in contact with once I had left. These friends--many of whom I consider a part of my western family--are my support network, professionally and personally.

While the people in the San Luis Valley and New Mexico are a big draw it is also the nature of the Southwest that calls to me. My heart, like many Easterners before me, was swept away by the mountains and deserts. The ecological niches that each plant and animal holds individually and together seems more pronounced here than where I grew up. Beyond my fascination with the environment it is grazing cattle that brought me back. Many people know me as the cow and tree lady, which is true, but what I discovered over the past two years of not being involved with grazing cattle is that I truly missed working with beef cattle and regenerating worn-out pieces of land with proper and well-timed grazing techniques. It wasn't just my desire to work with cows again--intensively and creatively grazing them--that pulled me back, but also the fact that the San Luis Valley is one of the only communities I have belonged to that is engaging in a conversation and taking action to conserve water and soil. I want to be a part of a movement where we truly try our very best to accomplish our goals of restoring an aquifer and keeping soil from blowing away. I want to be a part of a new generation of land managers that aim to create soil and renew and add to the land that they work and which has been entrusted to their care.

My last reason to venture back here was the position, foreman-in-training. Over the last year I have felt a strong urge to take up more responsibility and to challenge myself as an up-and-coming land manager. I'm not a typical young rancher. I never came out West to ride a horse 14 hours a day and to learn how to lasso. Those might be skills I need to work on, but that's not why I want to be a land/ranch manager. I want to understand and acquire the necessary skills to run an operation that is dependent on the land as its source of income, from bookkeeping to working out a price for my weaned calves with a neighbor. I want to be able to juggle the must-get-done list and the important-but-not-urgent tasks of a manager. I'm excited to have this opportunity especially because George and Julie care about seeing my managerial skill-set grow in a loving and educational environment. Growing into my first managerial position in this familiar operation, as opposed to a totally new one, is advantageous for jump starting my management experience.

What have I done since I left the ranch the first time, you might be wondering? Upon graduating from San Juan Ranch, my passion for fruit trees took me to Truchas, New Mexico and Tooley's Trees. I decided after that to travel to Australia for three months, which was one of the best decisions of my young life thus far. Taking a moment to pause in my agrarian journey to travel in new lands has only enhanced my world perspective and network. I want to continue to travel in the coming years so my itch to travel later in life won't be too strong when I've settled down on a piece of land.

When I returned from my adventures abroad I ended up looking for work in my home state of Virginia. It was good to be close to my family and to spend some time actually farming in my native state, which I had never done. I found a great general labor position at an extremely diversified farm in Northern Virginia near Washington D.C. The operation, Moutoux Orchard, is a whole-diet CSA farm. They provide forty families with raw dairy, eggs, meat, and vegetables every week, year round. I enjoyed my time farming there, but in the end the allure of the West won over me, again.

I set out this New Year with much enthusiasm. The focus of this year, as a foreman-in-training and a Quivira Coalition mentee, is to create a career development plan and along with it professional goals. At the moment I am formulating goals that encompass business skills, conflict resolution, improving grass and forb knowledge, Holistic Management, soil health knowledge, and much more. I am evolving from the college student I once was, floundering around trying to be a self-motivated-learner, to a beginning rancher and land manager with better self-discipline than I had three years ago, and I look forward to pushing myself to reach my professional and life goals. While I'm not entirely sure where this year will take me, I know spending another year putting in the grunt work that comes along with wanting to graze intensively on many different pieces of land will only enrich my land literacy and ranching knowledge. Continued tutelage with George and Julie will help me define and achieve the long term goals that are still manifesting.