New Agrarian VoicesLearn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.
Dunbar Mecklin, APPRENTICE, Veebaray Ranch
I came into the NAP program expecting to learn about holistic management, sustainable land stewardship and running a profitable livestock enterprise. Ultimately, I did learn quite a bit about these topics as well as fascinating knowledge about shortgrass prairie ecology and indigenous culture on the western Great Plains. However, what I truly gained from the apprenticeship is an understanding of what it takes to pursue a difficult, demanding, multi disciplined profession and succeed in the livestock industry. I think there were elements of naïveté, environmental idealism, and the romanticism of rural life that left me ignorant to the harsh realities of ranching and pursuing a profession and lifestyle radically different from anything I had done before. It quickly became evident to me and my mentor that there would need to be dramatic progression in my skills and ability for me to succeed in the cattle industry. That is absolutely understandable, and, frankly, the reality for most people trying to pursue a career in agriculture without a background in said field. However, I needed to ask myself some hard questions to proceed and provide a meaningful experience for both my mentor and myself. I had to separate dilettantism from true desire to learn and pursue excellence. I had to ask myself why I wanted to pursue a career in rnaching when the reality in many cases includes: financial hardship, little free time, social isolation, and potentially negative health outcomes. I don’t think I have fully answered these questions yet, but taking this hard look at myself and considering the implications of my choices and actions is something I frankly had been lacking. This apprenticeship in a way forced me to confront and try to answer these questions. Disillusionment with career prospects during the pandemic coupled with frankly an aversion/fear of committing myself to a specific career path: more specifically, the fear of failure, hardship, and rejection when pursuing said path had led me to not confront these questions. For example, am I willing to do ground work with a horse I have trouble riding after working a 10+ hour day of hard labor because I need to get handy with a horse to succeed in managed grazing in rough country? Am I willing to build a fence in the snow with a -10℉ windchill to make sure we can ration protein in order to keep animal performance sufficient on grass during the winter? Am I willing to study carpentry, welding, plumbing, and vehicle maintenance – none of which I have any competency in or strong predilection to pursue outside the context of ranching – in order to be able to maintain and run a ranch? Am I willing to do all of the above in the context of a culture that emphasizes self-sufficiency and competency as a norm and reacts to the lack thereof with harsh, direct criticism? I may have not yet reached the point where I can respond to the following questions with an emphatic “hell yeah!” to this. But I do feel like I have gained, for the first time in my adult life, the agency to ask and confront the realities of authentically pursuing a career/passion.
In terms of pursuing a career, I would like to continue to work in rangeland management, whether that is as a producer or conservationist on the ground, or through providing technical assistance and/or formulating policy, I am not currently sure. I’ve gained a lot of respect for partner agencies like NRCS and Agricultural extension offices as well as NGO’s such as the
World Wildlife Foundation, the National Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy etc. , so I am strongly considering a career working with those groups, having now gained insights on the production side of regenerative-minded, livestock operations. But I think more on the ground experience with ranching would be fulfilling and worthwhile in my career goals as well. I find there is a really strong feeling of accomplishment when I see a pasture grow back better after a short-duration grazing period with a high stock density, or I see a new native grass or forb species in a pasture. Consequently, I feel very motivated to keep working in this field and reap the personal satisfaction that comes from returning disturbance, such as appropriate grazing and fire to landscape, and observing the subsequent ecological benefits.
I would say the biggest highlight of my apprenticeship was being able to attend the Lost River Grazing Academy, in Salmon, ID. I learned a lot about grass management, risk analysis and profitability of installing infrastructure to implement management intensive grazing, and met some great people involved in range management and grass fed beef production. It was really affirming to see the grass management ideas that I had learned at the Veebaray get expanded on and supported. I also came out more confident in my ability to manage grass from a production and ecological perspective. Notable close seconds included: pulling/saving a calf during birth from one of the new heifers, being able to design my own paddocks and move/manage the cattle independently for a week, and attending a traditional bison hunt at the Fort Peck Reservation. Ultimately, I found the apprenticeship at times quite challenging, the remoteness of the Veebaray and finding ways to pursue my interests outside of work were difficult. In a way, that’s a good thing. I think I learned a lot about myself. I figure if I can make it out there at the Veebaray, there’s a good chance I can make it ranching in a lot of the West. I figure I can now ask myself more clearly: “what do I need outside of work to flourish?” Additionally, my mentor and I strongly agreed with the Ranching for Profit mantra of “it’s always a people problem”. And despite the inherent difficulty of ranching and the, at times, harsh conditions and country of the Veebaray, I do believe good working relationships can overcome this. That is,I think with a resilient mindset and strong interpersonal skills, I believe you can successfully ranch in just about anywhere a cow can make it.
REFLECTIONS AFTER THE FIRST MONTH
I associate meaning with work towards something greater than the individual. I believe sustainably managing the land we live on is intrinsically tied to the common good. I think land stewardship allows one to be a part of a whole, and, in some ways, something more long lasting and greater than one’s self. I am not necessarily putting the environment on some pedestal as something holy, rather I seek to develop a mutually beneficial relationship with it. I think that by reconciling agriculture with the natural/historic ecology of the land in question, such as through managed grazing, I can help preserve and restore land. Despite not owning or in any way being truly tied to the property which I have helped steward, I feel heavily invested in its ecological well being. I want to spend my free time picking up trash that blew in from the highway or hay string that froze to the ground. I want to add that extra electric cross fence to exclude a grazing-sensitive area from a paddock. I also feel a sense of pride in seeing new and diverse plant growth sprout up after the cattle have removed last year’s thatch and left behind some fertilizer.I believe this apprenticeship will give me a more comprehensive understanding of how to sustainably steward the land and more skills to do so. Consequently, this apprenticeship will allow me to pursue a meaningful life.