New Agrarian VoicesLearn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.
Rachael Leitnaker, APPRENTICE, Round River Resource Management, CO
As the summer winds down and autumn starts to blow away the heat and buzz of life around me, I notice that I too start to transition to a new mindset. As the birds flock, we take our stock and shipment by shipment our young, bouncing, and bucking yearling herd are shipped away. The ranch is a lot quieter with two thousand yearlings gone. When you’re in the thick of it all it’s hard to slow down and reflect. It’s hard to think about the day before when there is so much to be done in the days to come. So many cattle to count. But the seasons nourish us in that way. They know what we need even when we cannot hear our own body and mind. The season of autumn is there to tell us to slow down, reflect, enjoy the fruits of a long summer’s labors, and transition to rest. Now as I take the long straight drive back down County Road 11, and gaze westward across the undulating sea of soft brown and gold and sage, my mind is quieter. Now as the yellow cottonwood leaves start to loosen their grip and fall, so tempting the earth below to sleep upon, I too let go. And now as I surrender to the season, I can start to grasp the whole picture of this past summer’s experience.
I can say confidently that this summer I have worked my body and mind more than any other summer in my life. I’ve been more tired than I’ve ever been, but I’ve also never felt more fulfilled. I have gained so many new skills and perspectives that I hardly know the person before without them. And this, as the seasons do so effortlessly, reminds me of the beauty of change, the beauty of cycles, and the seasons of one’s life. How close we are to nature it is laughable that we forget.
During my time here at Round River, I have gone through many seasons of change so quickly I didn’t even notice. At the beginning of the summer when the stockers started rolling in, a few trucks this week, a few the next, I got my first introduction to working and moving cattle and quickly realized how nuanced it is. Watching so intently the moves of my mentor and more experienced co-workers about the pens. I didn’t even know what I was watching for just that I had no idea what I was doing and that I better follow suit and pick up quickly because I didn’t want to slow things down. Focusing solely on the motions. Looking to be told where to stand and what to do. Trying to map the maze of pens and gates in my head. Moving them from pasture to pasture was another frantic game of follow the leader. If they started pushing this way or that way I would too. All I knew was to push which wasn’t so straightforward with hundreds of clueless yearlings and I quickly became a collie, as my co-worker jokes, zipping back and forth trying to keep the herd moving quickly and my sanity afloat. And God forbid the animals do something I didn’t want them to do. Knowing so little caused everything to feel like such a big deal. I quickly learned my way around my trusty steed, the ever-grumbling ATV and I spent a lot of days chasing yearlings back into pastures not knowing how except hard and fast as if trying to catch kittens. This led me to a lot of really frustrating situations, exhaustion physically and emotionally, losing my temper with the animals wondering, “Why the heck don’t they see the open gate!”
Over time, however, I started to realize by watching others and testing my own waters that working cattle is more than just getting a machine to move forward. As I began to understand it more as an art, I started falling in love with the whole process. I learned the hard way that our animals are merely a reflection of our stockmanship. And the more energy you spend stirring up dust trying to fight these creatures the harder you are making it for yourself and the animals. There is a beauty in the tempo of cows. Like the slow beat of chewing cud. Slow and steady seems unbearable at first compared to the fast-paced world we are so used to. But when you learn to slow down and understand them, learn to watch their eyes and ears and read what they will do before they do it, learn to pressure, and most importantly release, you can fall into their rhythm. Working with them rather than against them. Once you’re in a flow with the animals the feeling of harmony is one that is so unique. Like you’re in rhythm with nature. Your breath with the beat. Stockmanship is something that I’ve really grown to love working on and learning more about and has made me realize that my passion lies mostly with the animals. Now that I know the dance, I can focus on other things while working and be much more observant of the animals and the land around me. Observant of what they are doing for the land, and what the land is doing for them. Noticing their routines, the best time of day to work them, and how to place them. How to read the subtle signs of their well-being and overall performance. Who knew reading cow dung could be so fascinating?!
As every new task that felt like boulders became pebbles I could kick with my feet. Like fence work, driving the old manual ranch truck, hauling, and problem-solving your way through a flat tire or getting stuck in the mud. I started to find my own rhythm as well. One of confidence and taking more initiative. Being a better manager of myself, my time, and even my attitude. Learning to read for potential problems before they happen was a big one for me. One day my co-worker pointed out the concept to me, saying that it’s not the most enjoyable way to be but if you’re always looking for what could go wrong before it happens then it saves you a lot of time in the long run. This way of thinking helped me become much more pragmatic, thinking steps ahead, and to be more proactive in this world I was finally starting to get the hang of. And although I am still ages away from being a master, I can look back now and say that I have come a long way.
More and more I am feeling the weight of the word farmer, steward, shepherd, and cowgirl and starting to understand the meaning behind it. The meaning they don’t tell you about because it is hard to put the experience into words. All I can say is agriculture has brought me so much feeling of purpose and fulfillment and I can start to understand this crazy world of hard work and long days and why people are so determined to do it. It taught me most of what I didn’t expect; character. Like pragmatism, tenacity, grit, and grace. Things that you cannot learn from a book or in a classroom. Only through failing and trying and failing again. Through getting out there on the land. Getting kicked, getting stuck, breaking down, learning to laugh at it, dust yourself off, and get back at it. And at the end of the day as you watch the sun kiss the horizon of the land you feel proud to be a part of, a deep easy feeling sets in. And I now know that this is what it’s about.
Going forward into this next season I am excited to have a clearer picture of my interests within agriculture and what direction I want to head next. I want to continue working for regenerative cattle ranches honing specifically on my stockmanship and herding skills and diving deeper into this feeling of what it truly means to be a steward of the land. I am interested in learning more about the role of genetics and breeding for the best performance on your land and closed herd systems. How you maximize your forage and animal impact to manage for what you want. I am also interested in diving deeper into land restoration strategies and how animals can be a tool when used the right way. A major highlight for me was being able to attend two different HMI workshops and learn some of the basics of holistic management. Now that I have started to grasp these concepts and put them into context, I would like to become more involved in these conversations on a ranch. Coming from a design background I feel that I can put some of my big-picture thinking skills to use with holistic management, which is super exciting for me, getting to unite two of my passions. Overall, I am just excited to start having more conversations with other ranchers now that I have a basic foundation of knowledge and practical experience to base off of. Being an absolute beginner starting out, I had to accept the feeling of being pretty clueless all the time, be okay with asking the simplest of questions, and just be a sponge soaking up all the information I could get. It was pretty exhausting and definitely humbling. And although I am still very much at the beginning of this learning journey, the NAP program and this internship have given me such a strong start that I would not have been able to get otherwise.
A meaningful life to me at its simplest is one where I wake up everyday feeling good about the work that I am doing. Even when the work is hard, if I feel what I am doing is contributing to an even bigger and more beautiful picture, that is a meaningful life to me. As a child, growing up on my grandparents’ farm, I was shaped by an understanding of having a relationship with the land. Knowing it, watching it change, caring for it and harvesting a living directly from it. A way of life that revolved around the soil under our feet. That connection was ingrained in me and would become the foundation of what is most important to me today and the life I want to live. Although I never really pictured myself wanting to pursue a career in agriculture until recently, that way of life stuck in the back of my head, and it was only a matter of time before I’d wanted to get back to those roots. I found that most things I pursued in college, although very different from agriculture, all pointed back to this idea of a life living with the land and in harmony with nature. So far, this apprenticeship has only confirmed within me that I am right where I am supposed to be, and this is the kind of work I want to stand for and live by.
As the first two months have gone by, and I start to familiarize myself with the ranch and the day-to-day tasks, I noticed a familiar feeling setting in. One that I’ve known before but surprised me because I hadn’t felt it since I was that little girl on her grandparents’ farm. That is this feeling of responsibility for the land and the life it sustains. The feeling of wanting to nurture it. The feeling that everything I do little by little is making a big impact and that sense of responsibility to show up everyday for it. It is an intoxicating feeling and as I start to get to know this very new place, I start to fall in love with it and want to give back to it. That is the feeling of meaning that I strive for in my life and was a sign that I am on the right path.
With regenerative agriculture my values, passions, joys, curiosities, and inspirations all get to work in alignment. Every day is different and allows me to be a creative problem solver and lifelong learner. Learning to work with the land, its natural processes and create something that is good and nutritious not only for the people consuming it but good for the land it came from and community that surrounds it.
I took this apprenticeship because I knew if I wanted to learn how to farm regeneratively I needed to learn by experience. I knew I needed to get out of my home bubble, meet new people, see new perspectives, challenge my beliefs, and challenge myself mentally and physically. I hope this apprenticeship will only continue to be the amazing adventure that it has been so far. I hope to keep testing and affirming within me why I chose this life and to define that life a little more every day. I am grateful to have such a knowledgeable and experienced mentor to teach me and give me the opportunities to grow and to be working and learning in an environment that allows me to learn so much through experience. In the span of two months, I have learned so many basic skills that are empowering to me and will allow me to build upon them and I am excited to keep learning, trying new things and to start refining those skills. The biggest thing I’ve learned so far, it’s that although at times the work has drove me a little crazy, what is even crazier to me is that I still wouldn’t want do anything else.