New Agrarian VoicesLearn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.
Lucy Zignego, APPRENTICE, Western States Ranches
What an incredible journey this apprenticeship has taken me on. At first thought, I feel no different from the girl who packed her belongings and faithful pup into her car 8 months ago and drove 1400 miles to a new world. Along with my collections of hoodies, shoes, and cast iron skillets, I brought copious amounts of confidence, excitement, and joyful anticipation of all the new skills and knowledge that awaited me. I even packed a few books. That still makes me chuckle.
The challenges and trials I encountered looked nothing like what I had expected, and the rewards nothing short of transformative. Pushed to my limits, I found a patience and strength within myself which served to fuel my transition from initial frustration, to gratitude and resilience. This strength emerged as I acknowledged lessons learned and growth achieved.
Gratitude is often associated with being thankful during positive moments, but throughout my apprenticeship, I learned to appreciate the challenge of being grateful during especially difficult times. It’s easy to practice gratitude and patience when the going’s good. When the cows are all in and the fences are hot, it’s only natural to drive home at the end of the day thinking, “What did I ever do to deserve this job? This is incredible.” Tromping through a lush irrigated pasture with the sun warming my skin, I could sometimes look around and see the water flowing where I had directed it, going on its merry way to nourishing growth and spreading fertility. I would romanticize the water channels and see them as glittering threads in a tapestry of life, or as veins on the surface of earth’s body. It was easy to marvel at the gift of Creation. It was fun to observe biodiversity. It felt beautiful to honor it. There was so much to be thankful for.
Turns out, it’s not quite as easy to appreciate biodiversity, when biodiversity includes millions of mosquitoes and deer flies all up in my business. Go be biodiverse somewhere else, why don’tcha? All of my cows are out (well, except the dead ones) for the tenth day in a row, the poly wire fence I was supposed to move, is shredded, also for the tenth day in a row, and both pairs of my boots are soaked. I wondered, “What did I ever do to deserve this job? This is…incredible…” On these days, (and the weeks and months that followed) the irrigated properties in my care each seemed a cruel and unusual punishment. The water channels had lost their manners and their glimmer; instead, they wandered aimlessly and savagely, often in places where I thought they had no business. They wreaked havoc on relationships with neighbors as I apologized for flooded yards and wet hay, yet again. It was truly demoralizing. If there was ever an honorable land steward, it was not I. This was defeat.
Thoroughly overwhelmed, a shadow cast over my confidence and hope, I began searching for ways to grow. I found my objective shifting from being focused on trying not to fail, to being aware of finding ways to fail better or more gracefully. The learning curve may have been straight up, but there was still so much to be thankful for.
I gained a massive appreciation for the commitment that mentors make to their apprentices at the beginning of every season and continuing on throughout the year.
Before my apprenticeship and at times during it, I only felt the weight of my own commitment. Making the leap from community, familiarity and stability as I knew it, to a foreign land and a foreign people, was daunting. Unsure of my housing situation, I agreed to being overworked and underpaid for 8 months, in a place I’d never step foot. And for what?
Mentors in the New Agrarian Program take their commitment to their apprentices very seriously. They spend hours upon hours driving with their apprentices between projects, offering explanations and invaluable feedback. They’re familiar with the land and the tasks they assign their apprentices to steward, so that, as questions come up, they have answers and solutions, and effectively direct us toward resources that aid in the learning process. They serve as a catalyst in their apprentices becoming more intimately acquainted with regenerative agriculture, through introductions and references made. All of the relationships fostered, knowledge shared and skills learned, are what sets us apart as valued agrarians-in-training. This is the difference between a failing business model reliant on cheap labor, a far too common reality in agriculture.
This exchange of time and energy points to something much bigger than ourselves. Valuing each other’s time, appreciating quality of life and creating space for constructive dialogue are critical in building a healthy team, or “community dynamics”, which plays a vital role in achieving a truly regenerative system. I found that ultimately, a robust team -an ecosystem of its own possesses the capacity to not only survive, but to thrive, leaving a positive and lasting impact on the broader system it operates within. Over the course of my apprenticeship, I realized how deeply fulfilling it is for me to be an effective part of a regenerative system. With loads of encouragement and support from my Quivira family (whom I’ll be forever grateful for- Looking at you, Holly!), I became more determined than ever in my pursuit of that sense of fulfillment. Moving forward, armed with resilience, grace and determination to keep failing better, the future has never been brighter.
As I packed my car to leave the ranch, I found there was less space in the vehicle than when I had arrived. Unsure how I had accumulated more belongings, I managed to cram everything in and as I drove away, it came to me; I was bringing away with me even more confidence and excitement than I had arrived with. There is so much to be thankful for.
REFLECTIONS AFTER THE FIRST MONTH
It’s hard to believe I’ve been here almost 2 months already! Days go slowly but the weeks fly by. When I arrived at Western States Ranches in early March, I was thoroughly overwhelmed. It’s safe to say not much has changed in that regard since then. I’ve become more aware of my surroundings surely, but no less in awe. There are innumerable moving pieces, complex systems everywhere, too many cows to count, extensive (and expensive!) infrastructure, all covering a vast and diverse landscape. I’ve spent not a little of my time here laughing at a past version of myself, and crying for her, for having thought that she was running away to a life where simplicity would be achieved by default, as if God were some sort of vending machine; pop in your hard work and out rolls fulfillment, peace and developed skill, right? Shoot, I was wrong. I’d been confusing management with control; there is a difference and that difference is everything. Arguably, no one can control a mob of heifers, but there is much to admire in someone who has learned to manage them well. Not a day goes by that I don’t have the opportunity to learn to fail gracefully and rise humbly. By the end of my apprenticeship, I hope I’ll have learned to suffer as joyfully as a three-legged dog. How are they so joyful?! I think that maybe they’re more acutely aware of the things that we so often take for granted, like sunshine and fresh air and good water and breathing. There’s another thing for me to strive towards: nurturing awareness, contentment, and gratitude simultaneously. Right now, that feels like a lot, but I’m confident that in the end, managing the complexity (of self, time and land) will achieve the simplicity I yearn for.
That’s all for now!