New Agrarian Voices

Learn 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.

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