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Current Apprentices

Courtney Hurst

2015 New Agrarian Program apprentice at the San Juan Ranch

In Courtney's own words...
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!!


2015 New Agrarian San Juan Ranch Foreman-in-Training
December 2014 - December 2015

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.

Martha Skelley Foreman-in-Training Reports