New Agrarian Voices

Learn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.

Bekah Vineyard, APPRENTICE, Tooley’s Trees, NM

Reflections after the First Month

How did you get interested in agriculture? And what are you hoping to gain from your apprenticeship?

My closest-in-age cousin and telepathic twin, Montana, loves to tell a story of the day his family arrived for a visit to my family’s suburban Connecticut home. Having driven about 18 hours from their hometown outside of St. Louis Missouri, they parked, exhausted, in our driveway and meandered casually to the back of the house. The very moment they rounded the corner of the house, they heard a shriek, and an open poptart packet came flying out of the back door. They entered that door to find me standing in the middle of the kitchen, clutching several boxes of snacks and staring deeply at the nutrition fact labels.

This was the moment that I realized food has consequences.

Seriously, though, I have understood for a long time that there is something terribly wrong with the ways we treat our selves, one another and the land beneath us. The ways in which we eat and treat the resources from which our food arrives is a clear reflection of these abuses. I feel that we need a spiritual shift – a way of better relating to the world around us, of seeing our selves in it – not taking it for granted, but, rather caring for it.

Being a farmer never felt like it would be enough for me, even though I felt deeply healed when working with soil, using it to remedy the ways my other work broke my spirit. So far in my adult life I have wondered endlessly how on Earth I will fit into the struggle for justice and also find happiness. I want to build community, and be a part of the community. I want to create something positive. Create something in my own image for a healthier world. I want to make use of my body in whatever work I do. Agriculture is the stunningly obvious answer, and I am done neglecting its path.

In the desert I began learning how to catch water, grow food, keep animals, build a network of passionate and beautiful people, deal with differences of reality and perspective, and work through personal struggles. I moved to New Mexico and somehow, magically, found the concept of regenerative agriculture. In this beautiful concept I found that agriculture could be more than a selfish way to care for myself and sustain happiness. It is a way of literally building soil and therefore life, of seeing and caring for the land as something greater than my finite time on this Earth, of taking care of my neighbors. It is beyond resistance to business as usual because it is a living example of better practices.

Today I sit staring at the Truchas Peaks of New Mexico, my eastern view. An apprenticeship at Tooley’s Trees is exactly where I am supposed to be, at the exact moment I am supposed to be here. The stable, positive environment that my mentors have built is the foundation I need to sort myself out in the crazy circumstance that has been realizing that I want to be a farmer. I am learning so much each day – inspiration and juniper pollen are swirling around my head.

Throughout the season I expect to build upon skills of seeing the landscape around me – how water moves across landscapes and impacts it, how plants can be used as medicine, how there is an infinite amount to learn from the world around us. I look forward to propagating trees and other plants – a skill that I can bring wherever my body goes and use to steward the land beneath me. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn good habits: always being prepared, taking care of tools, being resourceful. I am humbled by continued chances to improve on communication and be the type of community member I dream of being.

FINAL REFLECTIONS

Throughout the season at Tooley’s we we have propagated thousands of plants – bench grafting and bud grafting apples, pears and plums using wood off of the trees in our permanent orchard, and taking softwood cuttings of plants on our property such as roses, currants, elderberry, cottonwoods and serviceberry. There is a hopeful sensation that arises from looking out on our nursery bed of young graftlings – their vibrant new growth swaying awkwardly in the breeze as they begin already to harden into the spines of independent trees. Or transplanting cuttings with fresh white roots exploding from the site where they were cut, stimulated to embark on the journey of becoming a plant of their own. I am intrigued by plant propagation because of the not so long term – but also not instant – gratification in the act. 

When I think about the practice of propagation, I imagine holding workshops for young people and those currently incarcerated, and anyone else looking to hold something special in their hands. Propagation by cuttings and grafting is an amazing way of producing living plants quickly and with genetic confidence. It is so easy, and we truly have the potential of increasing our green space rapidly, sturdily, and cheaply. There would be great power in building community around propagating together to care for our cities and root more diversity in our neighborhoods. City landscapes are a terrible tragedy, as we have come damn close to completely eradicating the natural environment within them because we lack an understanding of how much healthier we are in a living, breathing landscape. We need to consider the cultivation of urban ecosystems as much as we need to consider more responsible management of our forests and grasslands. People in cities need healing. People in cities can heal through plants – through breathing with them and through the act of planting and caring for them.

The simplicity of propagation has made me realize real opportunity for jobs and wellbeing. If we began propagating plants for our cities now, the impacts would begin immediately, and would only grow over time. We desperately need more ecological diversity in urban spaces before we lose more existing species to pests and disease. We desperately need cleaner air. And we desperately need more to connect to. In city planning, one of the key guidelines for creating urban vibrance is to increase street activity, or “eyes on the street.” I like to think of roots and their associated exudates – the bacteria along for the ride – as a part of this street life. The plants and bacteria are a part of the community, too. They have a role to play in our health and wellness. And I believe they have a role to play in affecting the ways we interact with and feel about our spaces.

I have a strong academic background in city planning and community growth. It became apparent to me the minute I began learning about soil health and watershed restoration that this is simply an extension of that education. Urban planning and my work here with the land and plants are absolutely the same. To me, they are both systems work, and that, in and of itself, is the game. The point is the way that one sees the surrounding environment, and also the way one believes in the ability to impact it. It is especially when using land restoration principles that I feel I am doing the work I studied in urban spaces for years. Building community – whether underground or above the pavement – is the same. 

As we’ve worked, hiked and shared meals together, Gordon has been graciously instilling his deep knowledge of landscape functions and plant behavior. Our growth has been one in the same. Gordon grows as he shares with us his knowledge and understanding, begotten from the land itself and those who have tended it since the beginning of time. And we grow as Gordon continues to reveal his passion, emotional wisdom and connection to the system that is the land. We, together, have become better stewards and better humans. 

In agriculture, there are often hard lessons that seem to beg you never to need to learn them again, like: the time you let your sight off of the excited boar while you were in his pen, only to lay eyes on him again as he is charging you. Or the time you forgot to close the valve on the water catchment tank and lost 100 gallons of precious rain water, which you were living off of. The work here has in many ways been relentless, dogging and serious. There are many details to attend to, each with sheer consequences. I have never been so responsible for the intricate workings of the heart and veins of an operation: the irrigation system. I had to pay close attention always so I would not overpressure the lines or strain the pump and burn it dry. I was responsible for helping ensure that not a single tree missed the week’s ration of water. There has been a great deal of death on the farm this year, but in general I feel that the lessons have been less harsh than some of my experiences in agriculture. I am grateful for this every day. Rather than coming through brutally-delivered epiphanies, the learnings have come through daily lessons on the land. They have meandered gently, yet firmly, into my heart in the deafening heat of the day or in the stillness of the sunset hour. I have felt an awareness of them creep in as I talk with customers about the endless considerations and also endless possibilities of their landscaping plans. They have come alive as I chat with friends about what I am seeing as we walk through the woods or a meadow. They seep in gently as I stare out into the landscape. 

At Tooley’s, through lessons from Gordon and Margaret, the land and the work that I do, I have come to understand some of the teachings that have been in the making for me since the moment I arrived on the alien lands of the southwest. I am understanding plant germination, soil health, forest systems, watershed behavior, plant succession and ecosystem harmony like I never really thought possible for me. I am learning how to look at a space and see the sorts of conditions different plants prefer. I am therefore able to predict where I might find those same plants again. Or to look at the plants around me while hiking and understand what direction the hill is likely sloping. Most importantly, I am gaining my own confidence. Confidence in what I know and understand, what I am passionate about and guaranteed to know more about with practice. For the first time, it all feels possible. I am no longer wishing my way through the learning process. I am enticed by it. I am obsessed with drawing connections. I have a foundation of knowledge that I can feel within my bones, that I will build upon as I move ever onward. I feel powerful, autonomous. Like a person of this Earth. I have felt increasingly reassured that this is the path for me, and that itself is the biggest thing I wanted to find out during this apprenticeship.

Gaining an understanding of ecosystem succession has allowed me to better understand the landscape around me – knowing how I can best support it and ask it to support me and my own growing projects. However, this path of learning also supports me emotionally, philosophically and spiritually. It is truly difficult to break down in words how the things I am learning here are shaping the person that I am becoming. My comprehension of ecosystem dynamics is directly paralleling my comprehension of life as something I can understand and control, but at the same time can never have a handle on. I am coming to recognize my own sheer power plus the meaninglessness of everything. I am beginning to hear the call of the birds as a voice to the ways of the world. I am beginning to feel in the wind the answers to my questions.

One particular moment keeps coming vividly to mind, so that is what I want to share last. One day I was feeling gripped by a cynicism and sadness that I know all too well. I was tempted inward in the most tragic, most restrictive way. I was headed into old patterns. I was working in the field and, somehow, the cloud of my own emotions lifted as I looked up so that I could really see the landscape before me. The sun, high in the sky, caught the tips of the summer grasses as they all bowed to the north. Their golden color glowed, not outshining the countless other colors but highlighting them. I felt my worries melt to my feet and enter the dry earth. I stood upright in awe that I was able to bear witness to this moment. And then I remembered that the grasses often do this summer dance – I had simply been missing it for a few weeks. Perhaps it was only a few days I had been paying less attention to my landscape, but in this moment I was horrified to think there had been even one day that I had missed the dance of the light. 

Standing in the field that day, worshipping the grasses with my eyes, I realized that I could be here, in the present, letting the emotions flow through me like the wind through the grass. I can let that wind take with it what I no longer need, to carry it away with dust and seeds. I could pay respect to the great vastness of life that I am equally an important and beautifully insignificant part of. I could honor myself and the very emotions that sometimes grip me, by surrendering. Surrendering my power to the power that moves the grass and translates the colors of the horizon to my brain. I can surrender to these moments of sheer beauty, and realize that everything is somehow worth it. I am learning to let go, to be completely me, and to be a better coworker, all at the same time. I am learning to work hard, and to lighten up. I am learning how to do my best to be sure I don’t miss the light playing with crisp summer grasses.

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