New Agrarian VoicesLearn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.
Alex Prediger, APPRENTICE, James Ranch, CO
Take a peek into the daily life of an apprentice by reading their responses to these questions.
What is something you do every day? Milking is a daily task at James Ranch and I feel very lucky because we do it here in an outdoor, NZ style parlor with views of the pastures and mountains and fresh air blowing through. We also move the cows onto new pasture twice daily too and stepping in at least one cow pie is obligatory.
What items do you always take with you to your work day? I always have leather gloves, a leatherman, a hanky (I’ve cleared my airways on these since before COVID made them fashionable) and a fanny pack with a small notebook, pen, sharpie, fence tester, ear plugs, and bailing twine. I also bring my water bottle pretty much everywhere I go.
What does a typical day look like? Is there a general rhythm even if days fluctuate? A typical day at James Ranch involves one person escorting the cows up to the dairy barn from the pasture first thing in the morning to be milked, while a second sanitizes the milking equipment. There is usually a bit of calf wrangling that happens along the way and milking ends by 11 am or so. At this point cheese chores are next priority (periodic flipping of cheeses, coating, cutting wheels, removing batches from brine, washing dishes or assisting with the actual cheese making). Other farm projects like herd health work, infrastructure repair, prepping for next moves also happens at this time. Final pasture moves usually happen around 5 pm or so and the day (for apprentices anyway) tends to end around 6:30.
What is your favorite place on the ranch?There is a mythical place called Lake Manu and not far from its nutrient rich shores is my favorite place. It is a spot along the ditch that we irrigate from that has a little footpath enclosed by willows and a small, tippy bridge. There are roses blooming there now that inspire my nostrils each morning as I brush by them. What I like most about this place is that it has a saturating, moist, earthy feel and smell to it that reminds me of my humid beginnings. All of my cells seem to rehydrate in the few moments it takes to float through that green tunnel, light dancing off the water, and emerge, renewed, on the other side.
How are you getting to know the community around you? This is a great and complicated question for a time of social distancing in a new location! I’ve made friendships with co-workers through long hours spent working side-by-side, dodging manure or snagging the pee funnel in the nick of time to save one another from a golden shower in the pit parlor while milking. With many events cancelled and folks keeping apart, I feel like the community that I have engaged with most here at the ranch is actually the flora community. There is a whole new group of plants out here in Durango to encounter! Through keeping my eyes sharp while roving around the pastures or going on weekend hikes, I’ve been trying my best to bolster their representation in my repertoire.
What is a skill you have learned that you now feel confident in? This may sound pretty basic, but it might be the skill, no- the art! – of siphoning. We use siphons in almost every avenue of this job (some of them are marathon-caliber siphons to be sure!) My prior experience with siphons had been limited to mouthfuls of dirty fish tank water during our monthly aquarium clean-out as a kid. Given that past trauma, I can thank James Ranch for helping me suction my way to a better relationship with this useful skill.
What is something about your job that challenges you? Probably the biggest challenge that I face in my job is isolation. While I do have coworkers that I periodically spend time with (and am way less remote than many NAP apprentices), vast portions of my day are spent wandering around trying to solve problems by myself. This is definitely not something unique to this position, however the small crew size and spread out nature of things makes it kind of inevitable. I think that in a normal year, this would pass for time for reflection and solitude to a degree, but without a release from that isolation in the current moment, it just kind of builds. All of that is to say that I feel passionately about the importance of envisioning future agricultural possibilities that incorporate more community and empower work-life balance and am trying to use my ample solitary hours to keep dreaming that direction.
What is something that has surprised you about the experience so far? By far the most surprising thing about my experience here has been the significant difference in the techniques (and I’m defining technique here as: the manner in which an artist employs the technical skills of a particular field of endeavor so as to effect a desired result. Because Dan James is a hands-down artist) used at the James Ranch versus elsewhere that I have worked. Many of them are tailor-made to this operation, people powered, smooth, and pretty ingenious. I sort of expected, even knowing that farmers are innovative and scrappy, many of the systems would be the same as previous places in my experience. While the desired result is the same, and probably the essence/physics of it, the actual technique is unique and that is awfully darn inspiring for someone like me who doesn’t and will never have all the answers. You can make it up as you go and that can turn into an established, respected business.
What are you looking forward to in the rest of the season? I am definitely looking forward to continuing to observe the seasonal changes that occur in pasture quality, management, and how that affects milk production. I’m excited to forge deeper relationships with the cows, dive deeper into the cheesemaking side of the operation, but also hopefully not headlong into the ditch again, as I have done several times thus far while trying to move dams for irrigation.
Reflections after the First Month
In college I was steeped in hard science, on my probable way toward a veterinary degree. I worked in research labs, loved learning (and animals!), and the narrative was that school was the place you learn. During my Junior year I had my first environmental ethics class and Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer came in to speak about Traditional Ecological Knowledge versus Scientific Ecological Knowledge. To us she posed the thought: “Though the Earth provides us with all that we need, we have created a consumption-driven economy that asks, ‘What more can we take from the Earth?’ and almost never ‘What does the Earth ask of us in return?’” The relationship between these questions gave me a birds-eye view of how I felt my standard, middle class life had been up until this point and how I slowly started to see the world after. It awakened subconscious feelings I was experiencing about the shortcomings and narrow-sightedness of SEK and common consumer culture. These questions and their related TEK/SEK relationship became a holistic lens for me to understand other complex situations later and launched me into thinking about living with an ethic of care. What would that look like and how could I invoke reciprocity (really with all things) going forward? In trying to answer this, I’ve somehow stumbled my way into living and working on small-scale, diversified farms across the country for the past 8 seasons. I’ve also come to the realization that for many of us (human and nonhuman alike) nourishment is how we navigate the world- cooking might be our love language, a meal might be a place to find common ground or give thanks, not to mention all of the ways that being out in nature can nourish your soul. To me, regenerative agriculture is about so much more than just feeding people and the soil. It’s a way of interacting with the world that lets me revel in the messy, creative, and deeply vibrant experience of being alive.
Through completing the NAP apprenticeship, I hope to be able to talk about the importance of regenerative tools with greater confidence and deeper understanding. I want to be able to fluidly use practices that cultivate diversity, reduce inputs, provide nutritious food directly to friends and neighbors, and strive to increase access to underserved folks as a direct act of resistance to the current food system. A farmer wears so many different hats- from advocate to community builder to land steward to teacher- and in all those ways I think I could work to make our agricultural practices and food culture more resilient and holistic. In other words- I want to actively and collaboratively be a part of growing a community of wonderfully contemplative and grounded folks who not only ask the question “What does the Earth ask of us in return?” every day, but they answer it with the careful stewardship of the land and each other.
I came to James Ranch back in April with the primary goal of overcoming my deep-seated aversion to business. My blockage can probably best be described as one of spiritual or even athiest-level proportions. That may sound like an odd reason to do an agricultural apprenticeship- but to be honest, this wasn’t my first apprenticeship. Hell, this wasn’t even the first (or 4th) small scale dairy that I’ve worked on. Sure, I deeply wanted to work with dairy cows again and learn even more about the art of holistically balancing cow nutrition solely on forage, while molding that melted-gold Jersey milk into delicious wheels of cheese. But what really pulled me into the James Ranch was their long, rich history as a family of entrepreneurs. I’ve listened to enough life-coachy podcasts and read enough inspirational books to know that the sentiment, “Surround yourself with who you want to become,” is supposed to have widely-accepted merit.
Farming as a way of life– the steep learning curve of long, scrappy days, jenky farm fixes, sometimes bone-tiring thankless work, all in careful stewardship of the land– the romanticism of this pastoral existence deeply caught me years ago. But what has also stayed with me is just how hard each and every one of the 8+ farms I’ve worked on has struggled to keep afloat, retain enough skilled labor to continue to operate, and has, at times, engaged in (and this is a hard pill to swallow) the exploitation of their workers. This system is deeply broken and I think a huge portion of my anxiety comes from not wanting to repeat this cycle, and of wanting to believe in a more heartfelt option. What I just couldn’t seem to see is how I could do it differently when all of these amazing people who I deeply respect and admire haven’t figured it out yet either. In searching for a regenerative “guru”, I’ve continually given up some level of inner wisdom/knowing/power to others who I hoped had “the answer”. This was unfair to put onto them, and also an unfair standard to put on myself. The simple truth is that it has taken me 8 years to learn that no one has the answer, because there is no answer. This realization is both a closing and an opening. Acknowledging that there is no ‘one solution’ that someone may tout, deeply disappoints the black and white portions of my psyche. But in accepting this, so many other possibilities unfurl, and there is incredible freedom going forward. I’ve realized that searching for answers outside of myself has been misguided, and what I’ve needed to do is focus more internally.
Ghandi once said: “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is. And the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”
What I have been circuitously trying to say is that maybe this changing of my nature is what I have been attempting during my apprenticeship. I have strong fears of taking risks, failing, and getting in over my head, but maybe that has just been me mirroring the fears of my family and other folks around me. I have not trusted in myself or my own abilities and knowledge because at some point in my life I embodied a cultural tendency of giving up my power to a greater authority (probably in structured, status-quo education and gendered culture). I also have definitely been waiting to see what others do, trying to give myself more security by seeking out their answers to a broken food system rather than feeding the fire of my own ability to create solutions.
As I’ve reworked my Holistic Goal this season, this quote of Ghandi’s has helped me realize that continually chasing answers through various farming operations hasn’t allowed me to sink into place and really build the relationships that nourish my community. My risk aversion has led me astray from deepening ties through taking risks in service of others (land/biota community included), which is actually counter to my Holistic Goal. At some level, completing farm learning programs was certainly my due diligence in acquiring outer knowledge, but I think I got caught in a loop, and I hope now to transition into a stretching phase of growing my inner knowledge.
The truth is that from the start of my time here at James Ranch, I knew that I wanted to return to the Northwoods of Wisconsin. To be a part of the waters, forests, and community there. I already knew the importance of community, but just couldn’t envision past the basic, support role that I have always played. I had hoped that by working with the enterprising James family, not only would I be more confident and capable to launch a farming venture back home, but that I would have a firm, creative business structure to return with. I had hoped that I would have a concerted wind in my sails. To be honest, what I have come away with is not that. What I have actually gleaned is maybe just the beginnings of Ghandi’s sentiments: becoming aware of what I am mirroring in the world and trying to gradually shift that toward what I want to embody and emanate.
The James’ live such that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. By stretching in place, they are able to nourish community. This alchemy provides opportunity for other farms and the many members of the family to contribute and grow. Maybe it is misplaced to try to stretch or nourish in mutual exclusion? Maybe my blockages have come from trying to have all of my business ducks in a row before engaging with community, when really, what I need to do is to allow myself to be fully seen and develop in relationship with community? The one certainty I have is that this past season has solidified in me the desire to continue to both look inward and reach out to ponder these questions and to do so in the good company of the Northwoods.
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