New Agrarian VoicesLearn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.
Brady Lux, APPRENTICE, Moe Ranch, MT
REFLECTIONS AFTER THE FIRST MONTH
Perhaps due to my being dyslexic and as a result a painfully slow reader I still haven’t got through the Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leapold that I started reading when I was a sophomore in high school. However, there was one bit that stuck with me about how a thing is “right” when it tends to preserve the integrity of its surrounding community or something along those lines. In my opinion, there are few things in this world a person can be part of that are as “right” as agriculture. I think Leopold was referring particularly to natural biotic communities in his writing but the way I see it humans have a spot in that community and the best tool we have available to integrate our economic and social systems into the surrounding ecological community in way which is not excessively destructive to all parties involved is through agriculture.
I have always wanted to be a farmer, but it has taken me awhile to fully understand what that meant. Growing up in a Forest Service family in North Idaho timber town I was around a lot of people who really cared about good land management. I saw how well-intentioned environmentalists effectively prevented the right management decisions from being made and in the process killed an economy and a way of life that had sustained communities for generations. As a result, I came away with a land ethic that understood the complexity of ecosystems and people and the importance of the working landscape.
We had a neighbor growing up, “farmer Burnum” who had a few cows and would put up hay with his John Deere Model B tractor. It had a very distinctive sound and every time I heard it as a young child I would go out and watch what he was doing. From that moment on all I wanted was to have an old tractor of my own. I remember going to preschool and drawing a picture of a tractor and telling the teacher that I was going to be a farmer. After preschool I began to have my doubts as to whether farming was a viable career path. I decided it might be more realistic to be a mechanic or a geologist. When I was 14, I started working on the hay crew for family friends who were trying to direct market cattle and hogs. I would go stay on the farm a few weeks over the summer and help with projects. I was completely hooked on the lifestyle. This was also when I was first exposed to the ideas of Wendell Berry and I realized that I could I blend my love of machinery with my desire to create a sustainable working landscape into one thing. I have been trying to make that happen ever since.
The more I have learned the more I have discovered new things that I still need to learn. I am still looking for the right path towards becoming an agricultural land manager and I hope this apprenticeship is the next step toward finding it. Often the best way to understand how to do something successfully is to watch someone who is doing it. More so than specific physical skills, I came into this apprenticeship hoping to see how someone puts all the little pieces together. There is so much diversity and complexity in an agricultural system and I think understanding how to balance all of the diverse and sometimes conflicting priorities together in a way that is successful is such an art. I think being exposed to good systems of decision making and prioritization will give me the tools to build a successful management system sometime in the future.
Over the past eight months I have gained a newfound understanding and respect for paintings. Central Montana is a place that I think is best described not in words but rather in pictures. My understanding of the world and how communication works has always revolved around listening and talking, and I don’t think I ever had the perspective to understand how much could be communicated in a living picture. That paradigm was definitely reinforced working in agriculture in the south were any business communication was liable to involve a minimum 30-minute conversation about weather, farm equipment, Christian values and raisin’ hogs; before any discussion of the topic at hand was reached. I thrived in this environment and was often one to seek out these interactions where so much could be said; sometimes without really communicating anything at all. Coming from the lush Carolina mountains teaming with the noise of plant and animal life I was initially rather unprepared to understand the context of such a starkly different place, like central Montana. I came to find however, that equally as much was being communicated, I just needed to learn how to read it. Now I have a better idea of why Charlie Russel made all those paintings of Montana. He could have tried to explain the place in a book but there would’ve been a lot of things that he wouldn’t have been able to say. Thus, I think if I really wanted to portray an accurate account of my time in Two Dot Montana I would need to create about four oil paintings. Unfortunately, I can see these paintings in my mind, but I do not currently have the ability to transfer them to tangible reality. So, in the absence of an accurate pictorial representation, I will attempt to explain in words, a little of what I have had the privilege to see over the last eight months.
If there was one thing that I learned in North Carolina, it was that success is much more connected to who you know, than what you know. I wanted to get back to the inland northwest and make a life in agriculture, in the wild landscape of my youth. I knew if I was going to be successful in that endeavor, I would need to make connections with right people. After having the opportunity to attend the Regenerate conference in 2019 I decided that the Quivira Coalition just might be that group of right people I was looking for, so I signed up for the apprenticeship. I’d found my way into an interim position, Managing the mixed crop and livestock farm at my alma mater Warren Wilson College. I was overseeing the implementation of a massive stream mitigation project, the activity of around 20 student employees, the daily operations of a complex agroecosystem with hogs, cattle, sheep, corn, barley, educational and economic objectives and a fleet of aged equipment and infrastructure all mired heavily in the bureaucratic complexity of an institution on the brink of financial insolvency. I had the mental acuity that one gains from managing their stress by drinking about four beers a night and at least as many cups of coffee in the day. Long story short, I thought I had just about got things figured out.
Sometimes you don’t understand just how much you don’t know until you get the chance to experience a little bit of it. In a lot of ways that has been the biggest takeaway of my experience. I quickly realized upon coming out to the Moe Ranch that a lot of the things which I had previously “figured out” I in fact knew next to nothing about. Things like cows, where I realized my understanding was analogous to the blind man in the old fable confidently describing an elephant as a long skinny creature with a tuft of hair at the end because all he had hold of was the tail. I realized that my previous understanding of cattle behavior and how to work with cattle was off by about a whole elephant worth of information that I had never had the perspective to see. I became exposed to the nuance of cattle phycology, the principles of low stress stockmanship and the lifetime of learning about cows that was now available to me. Similar to this situation, I uncovered numerous things over the course of the apprenticeship that I was either very comfortable doing, or thought I clearly understood, in one context, but upon being exposed to them in a new context, saw how little I really understood about them.
Working with the same two people just about every day for about eight months can really give you a window into how someone sees the world. I knew this would be an interesting and valuable experience, but I didn’t understand how much getting to know someone else’s perspective, would teach me about my own. Perspective is really an amazing thing. I think I learned as much about my own motivations, flaws, worldview and context during my eight months in Montana as I did about how ecology, economics, management and luck all work together to create a successful ranch. This experience allowed me to rediscover my love of learning, and sense of wonder that was nearly beaten out of me after twenty years a student in the American education system. It allowed me to change my paradigm from one of answers, knowing and judging to one of context, curiosity and continuous learning.
As I am thinking about what I have written here, there is defiantly quite a bit of this kumbaya, emotional refection on my feelings and previous life experience. I think this may be overshadowing the many practical agricultural things that I also learned over the apprenticeship. I like to think I am someone who prefers to focus on these practical tangible things. In fact, I had intended to use this reflection to talk about the working landscape that I want to be part of creating; and how this might solve some of the interconnected problems facing rural community and agriculture right now. Instead, it turned into this. That being said, I had never previously spent any serious time mending barbed wire fence. After a few days twisting wire under the Montana sky, a fellow can get in touch with a spiritual, emotional part of himself that he didn’t know he had. I wish every person in the United States could have the opportunity to fix a bit of fence. I would wager if we all spent a few days out mending barbed wire we could just about eliminate the divisiveness and disfunction that is currently challenging us and maybe put a therapist or two out of the job. In the end, what I appreciate about this experience most of all has been this sort of intangible piece. These people and this place have helped me change the way I see things, and for that I will always owe a debt of gratitude.
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