Previous ApprenticesMartha Skelley
In Martha's own words...
March 26, 2012
Over the past couple months I have been mulling over a phrase --Land Advocate. How can I become a land advocate? Is this my calling? My image of a land advocate is someone who strives for an intimate relationship with the land, goes out and observes changes in the land, and reminds others of their connection with the land. I want to ask folks one simple question: "How did you interact with land, soil, and plants today?" I hope this question is thought-provoking. Maybe not at the moment it is asked, but as they move forward in time, they will recall this simple question. Perhaps they will feel called to their gardens, fields, and wilderness in a new way.
My interaction with land and soil started with the place I grew up --the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. This large valley was filled with just the right resources and people to nurture my interest in environmental studies. My childhood brought me up-close and personal with the creatures that roamed in my backyard woods and excited my curiosity in biology. This drive to know what was in my backyard--and later the entire valley--grew as I got older.
My growing passion for soil began in high school. As a member of the Envirothon team, I was introduced to basic soil science and land-use, as well as forestry, aquatic ecosystems, and wildlife; I chose to specialize in soils. Here I developed an appreciation for the earth beneath my feet. This vital substance that is so often abused and viewed as a lifeless medium became my focus throughout high school and my first years of college. Along the way, I was encouraged by teachers to research and to delve into the subject.
I found myself one hot August morning in my backyard attempting to dig a soil pit (which my mother was convinced the neighbors would think was a grave), and after a morning of digging, found myself no further than five inches into the ground. I wondered why the soil was so compacted and dead looking; what was missing? There was grass growing over the top and it was not a well-travelled area. The steadfast compaction I observed confused me, but it boiled down to the type of soil. It was high in clay and low in organic matter, and on that August day its small compacted pores held little water, making the earth hard as concrete. Though the pit never materialized, I found myself wondering about the physical and chemical make-up of all types of soils. At Massanutten Regional Governor's School I was allowed to create my own year-long research projects. I focused on soil and grasses during my time there. Some mornings were spent in the cool North Fork of the Shenandoah River monitoring water quality, while other days were spent observing nodules on the roots of soybean plants in a farmer's field. My teacher, Cathy Hughes, taught agro-ecology, and helped me understand the connection between soil science and agronomy.
I found myself interested in an alternative college experience, not a land-grant education. I discovered Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. My experience at Warren Wilson expanded my interest in environmental studies, but it also ignited my consciousness surrounding sustainable land management. At Warren Wilson each student participates in the Triad program, which interconnects academic, work, and service learning. Students are not only engaged in an academic course of study, but they also work for the college on campus work crews while finding avenues to serve the greater community beyond the campus. I worked as a member of the Warren Wilson College Farm for two and half years and gained firsthand experience with cattle, swine, poultry, and direct marketing. I had the opportunity to apply my studies readily to my daily work, and spent much of my free time talking "ag" with others. My friends and I lived and breathed the rhythm of the college farm. As a summer intern, I experienced for the first time the inner-workings of a farmer's life. It was no longer just chores and "do-the-work-expected-from-you." Daily chores needed to be done, but the farm's success required every student to invest more fully, to make a conscious effort to understand every detail. It was learning how to revive a sick animal or to decide whether to end its pain and life. It was watching the corn grow and cover the bare soil. It was moving cattle to a new paddock of fresh grass each day. It was camaraderie of like-minded individuals pursuing the same objectives: to nurture the land and animals.
At this point, I knew land management was something I wanted to pursue. I wanted to know the details behind each operation and the management decisions that were likely to be made. I wanted to go out and improve agricultural land and communities, and to remind folks of where their food came from. I was drawn to how animals could be used to improve soil quality and provide healthy food. I was a cattle crewmember for a year and half and later student crew boss before graduating. I learned a great deal about myself while working with livestock, and how important it is to respect their lives and, later, sacrifice. I decided to major in environmental studies with a concentration in sustainable agriculture and a minor in chemistry, and after graduation, I found myself wanting to pursue a potential career in land management.
The New Agrarian Program apprenticeship is another step forward towards becoming a land manager and land advocate. I feel called from the east to see what sustainable ranching holds and find connections between sustainable farming and ranching. Industrial farming has removed much of its self-sufficiency by choosing not to incorporate animals into their crop rotations. I want to mend the biological disconnect and see where ranching can take me as an advocate and manager.
I am here in Colorado with a love for hard work and a drive to have an intimate connection between the soil life beneath my feet, and with the ultimate goal to learn how to use cattle to feed that beautiful complex thing called soil. Today, I am pursuing to become a land advocate here the San Luis Valley. I will be touched by a new landscape, one I hope to get to know intimately, learning from those who have watched the land change. I will take their stories along with me as I move on to a new place and cultivate a new connection with a new community and landscape.
Martha Skelly Apprentice Reports
In Amy's own words...
My start in agriculture began in the rural ranching community of North Park, CO. I spent my childhood riding my horse and constantly jumping off to look at a new plant or interesting rock. I may have spent more time at the barn than in my house and raised horses, goats, pigs, and rabbits through the local 4-H program. As a kid, North Park was a thriving region, and its people were connected to the land by making their livelihood from it. Spending my days surrounded by nature and the closeness of this rural community started a love and passion in me for the way of life that is only achieved through working and living off the land. Over the years, I have seen first hand the decline of family run ranches in the area, resulting in the disintegration of economic and social conditions in my community. It has been heart wrenching to see a livelihood I greatly value be replaced by large corporations.
I earned a degree in Geography from the University of Colorado at Boulder. I spent summers hiking through the woods to collect data on forest diversity for the U.S Forest Service, riding up above 8,000 feet to gather cattle from their summer grazing pastures, and living in a mountain cabin with no running water or electricity. After graduation, I started work as a GIS (Geographic Information Systems) intern for a software company in Boulder and was eventually promoted into an office manager position. Although I enjoyed many aspects of my job, I longed to return to a life in agriculture and the outdoors.
I made the jump and moved to Australia to work on a cattle station in the Outback. During this experience I was introduced to many sustainable methods of ranching and living off the land. The cattle were 100% grass fed, as Western Australia did not have the industrial and marketing infrastructure to send cattle to feedlots within the region. We produced our own electricity, collected rainwater to drink and lit fires to heat water for showers. Being a part of these practices led me to think more about the progressive opportunities sustainable ranching may provide to people. I found myself returning to the U.S. rethinking the importance of family agricultural enterprises and rural communities, and I realized sustainable agriculture is a solution for preserving America's Western heritage and land.
I love the creativity and resourcefulness, the fortitude and realism that go hand-in-hand with ranching. A challenge is always presenting itself and you never stop learning. A life in agriculture is character building, you develop strength and independence. I aspire to be this type of person, who develops these traits cultivated by a life connected to the land. It fosters qualities that society should value, and the world needs people who have this sort of balance, practicality and dedication.
The story of what has happened in my home community of North Park is hardly unique. I see the CARLY ranch apprenticeship as an innovative solution to help address this problem seen throughout our country. From the moment I read about the program on the Quivira Coalition's website, I knew it was the opportunity I have been seeking. Quivira's collaboration with apprentices and mentors creates a unique learning environment to not only develop hands on skills and leadership abilities but to also pass on agricultural wisdom and traditions. For there to be learning opportunities for young people that include more than just chores or "cowboying " lays a foundation for our future generations to create a professional life in agriculture. Learning the ideas, business concepts, financial planning, and knowledge behind sustainable management decisions is an essential part of successful ranching and a key component of why CARLY is the next best step for someone like me.
I am continually drawn to hard work on the land, and the unique connection it enables one to have with the earth and the animals that societies depend on for their livelihood. One of my favorite jobs is sorting cows. My mentor and friend, Larry Davis always told me, "It is like a dance, you and the cow always move off each other." It is a beautiful and graceful act, to work off the cow's shoulder makes such a difference in the ease of how cattle are handled. These and other sharp images are ingrained in my memory, like watching a bull stir up dust while the sun sets or bottle feeding a calf as it tries to suck on my knee cap, fingers, and everything else it can find. The emotions I feel when so close to nature, life, death, and livelihood, make me want to continue doing `this', forever.
Amy Wright Apprentice Reports Amy Wright HMI Article
December 2009-October 2010
In Sam's own words...
Where I Rode, and What I Ride For
I like complexity and quiet in cowboying. Ranching can be complicated, but the new leaders of the industry should be equipped to conserve both the land and culture of the West. I've been lucky enough to work on some big old beautiful outfits in Montana, Wyoming and Argentina. I was luckiest to find some good horses, friends and neighbors. Along the way I had a few real generous teachers. Soon I hope I'll run my own place - keeping the horseback traditions and applying the best practices of progressive management. For a guy like me this apprenticeship is a chance to go forward.
The San Juan Ranch is an honest old beautiful place. George Whitten and Julie Sullivan are the best kind of teachers. Their ground on the flats south of Saguache, Colorado and up in the foothills of the San Juan Mountains might not be one of those romantic spreads, which is a good thing. You can't disguise the humble fact this is a real ranch. Down in the chico brush these meadows raise the finest tender beef: organic, grass-fed and affordable. Here in the big open valley George and Julie offer this unique curriculum in learning on the land.
I came here to study some unusual methods of ranch management, grazing planning, beef production, grass-based finishing and marketing. Owning or managing any piece of land is a high privilege, and one to which I aspire. Wallace Stegner wrote, "Ranching is one of the few western occupations that have been renewable and produced a continuing way of life." I like the kind of progressive ranching that keeps the ancient traditions contemporary, growing livestock for the good of the land. I admire the careful old ways the best buckaroos handle their cattle a-horseback. They remain proud enough of their skills never to compromise and modest enough never to tell. You can heal the land with livestock, but not by just talking about it. It happens here at 8,000 feet above sea level in the best kind of a classroom in the San Luis Valley.
I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I studied architecture and urbanism at Yale. Directly after
graduating there I moved into a tipi in southern Montana where I was designing a house for my mother. After a while I had a little black gelding. I was just riding him bareback around the county, finding odd jobs and cooking in a café when I landed on a good ranch near Roscoe. They hired me on, just as I was. Soon enough I bought a saddle and a rope to throw at a cow whenever I got the chance. I never planned on being a cowboy but before too long I had more horses, colts and cow-dogs.
A cowboy might need to just wander for a spell, and if I did roam around a little I was lucky to find myself always learning. I hitchhiked across the country. I rode an old bicycle across Italy. One winter I was in Argentina riding with some gauchos, working grass-fed cattle on the Pampas. When I came home that spring I spent a month herding 1,500 weed-eating goats restoring oilfields in Wyoming. I rode on some big roundup crews. I spent months riding alone watching cows and calves in the high country of Montana and Idaho. I managed another herd of goats for weed control on ranches across central Montana. I started colts under some top hands. Most of those jobs never felt like work. I always had the horses and a dog or two right there with me. But we've been traveling enough for now. I'm pulling the shoes off my horses this week. The dogs are glad to stretch out and sleep in the winter sun. I'm ready to settle down and study for a while.
George asked me today where was the best place I ever worked. I said, "I don't know, some places were more beautiful and some places had better people or better horses. But you could never stick around anywhere too long." I said, "I hope this place turns out to be the best one." We were just rattling down the road in his old Suzuki, dogs in the back, late in the day west across the big valley. We'd been feeding cows, planning our winter pasture rotations and roping a dummy calf in the driveway but we had to go bring that old blue flatbed truck home with some hay before the cold tomorrow morning. The cowboy romance of ranching makes a rugged old myth, but I'll take the complex reality. The best part of any place is the quiet way we get along, all of us neighbors on the land.
Sam Ryerson Apprentice Reports
April 2009-April 2010
In Amber's own words...
My interest in agriculture started early. At three years old, my mom found me lying in the dirt under a goat to help her kid nurse. This seems to be a pattern. Lately, I've been kneeling in manure, mud, and snow while trying to get calves to suck their mothers here at the San Juan Ranch. Just today one of the calves that we've been nursing along danced around throwing out his back legs. That is a beautiful thing. I am thrilled to be the first CARLY apprentice at George and Julie's. I knew from the moment that I visited nine months ago that this was the place to learn how to become a conscientious, resilient, and sustainable rancher. I plan to use the knowledge that I gain here in the San Luis Valley to start my own place in the next five years. I expect to spend these two or three years learning how to create a sustainable and economical operation from dedicated ranchers and farmers. Through the CARLY apprenticeship, I hope to become an ambassador and leader for sustainable ranching.
For starters, I was born in West Virginia and then moved to a homestead in Maine with my mom and step-dad when I was seven. My sister was born on the porch four years later. Growing up in Wellington, I learned to carry hot water for baths, check the sky for Orion on the way to the outhouse, and trim kerosene lamp wicks until we got solar panels (the house is still off the grid). We ate porcupine pot roast in the winter and fresh veggies from the garden in the summer. In our self-sufficient household, I entertained myself by making things, reading, hypnotizing my bantam chickens, and wandering around in the woods. I would search out old cellar holes and overgrown stonewalls where I found interesting plants like Ostrich Ferns and Jack-in-the Pulpits to bring home and plant in the yard much to my mother's delight. Even when I lived in the city years later, I noticed when Bard Owls were mating, Ocotillo was blooming, or quail were hatching. During the summer I would go back to West Virginia, and stay with my dad where we went mountain biking and ate a lot of buckwheat pancakes.
After high school, I went to Europe and worked for WWOOF (Willing Workers On Organic Farms)in France and Italy. I also worked on two independent organic dairies in France and Switzerland. There I learned how to milk goats and cows, make cheese, fertilize olives, and bake apple pie. When I returned to Maine, I went to Bowdoin College and majored in Environmental Studies and Visual Art and minored in Biology. I spent the 2001 fall semester in Brazil learning about Amazonian Ecology and Natural Resource Management. On the Amazon Delta, I conducted an independent research project on the pollination system of a cashew-like tree, Anacardium gigantium. My project also focused on native sting-less honeybees that pollinate flowering trees and plants and can be cultivated for honey, forest productivity improvement, and economic alternatives to slash and burn agriculture.
During the summers, I lead canoe trips in the remote Northwoods for Darrow Camp in Maine and Camp Widjiwagan in Minnesota. These trips ranged from one-week trips in the US to longer expeditions into Quebec, Labrador, and Ontario. Both camps used wooden canvas canoes and a traditional style of travel. In 2004, with my co-leader I planned and lead an exploratory canoe trip with 6 teenagers from a train drop in Quebec through the wilds of Labrador. The following year, I became the Assistant Director of Darrow Camp during the transition between Executive Directors.
A few years after college, I joined Teach For America and taught Algebra in Atlanta for a summer. TFA placed me in Charlotte, North Carolina where I taught Biology at a crowded inner city school. The following year I worked as a Special Education Paraprofessional in Leadville, Colorado at the Middle School. Before coming to the ranch this spring, I was a Read-To-Achieve teacher for Kindergarten and 1st grade in Leadville. I've enjoyed working with such a wide variety of students over the past three years, and I've learned a lot about different types of leaders who can adjust their style to fit any situation.
Some of the other things that I've done over the years include: being the artist-in-residence, snowshoe hare exterminator, and cook at the Kent Island Scientific Field Station, waiting tables in a yurt without running water, grooming Nordic ski trails, researching various ant species' relationships to Fish Hook Barrel Cactus in Tucson, working at a boat yard building wooden lobster boats (Pulsifer Hamptons), wrapping Christmas trees in the snow, and pulling tons (literally) of Alsa Craig onions for the Common
Ground Fair in Maine.
Ranchers and farmers must be adaptive and observant; therefore, they thrive when they understand the specifics of their land. I believe that sustainable agriculture is the most important component of conservation, and grass-based ranching is the most efficient use of our natural resources and the healthiest, happiest system for animals and people. I want to be part of the movement forward with ranchers and farmers who are innovative, skeptical, and care deeply for their land, animals, and communities.
Amber Reed Apprentice Reports