New Agrarian Voices

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

Christopher Mellen, APPRENTICE, Round River Resource Management, CO

My Pursuit of Regenerative Agriculture Happiness

It was a dark and stormy night riddled with the sounds of raindrops sprinkling down on the tin roof of the hospital. Muffled screams were heard just above me as a dim light broke through behind me. Suddenly, I was pulled vertically with jerk not even Jamaican Chicken could make. A painful slap awakened all my senses and brought forth the shrillest sound I had ever heard. Luckily, it was just me breathing fresh air for the first time with only one thing on my mind—Regenerative Agriculture!

Well, I wish that was the true story, but it wasn’t really that dramatic for me. I was born in Colorado Springs and my dad Pastored a small church of around 300-500 people. A good number of them came from rural areas and we would visit their various farms and milk the cows and ride horses. I grew up on fresh unpasteurized cow’s milk while growing up in Colorado Springs.

My Dad is the oldest of 12 kids and grew up on a farm. Whenever, we would visit the grandparents in Kansas, we would definitely visit the farm, milk the cows, play on the hay, and of course go cow tipping with the uncles (as a teenager), and enjoy the company of my 25 cousins and the Mellen family.

One day my dad and mom sold our house, packed two suitcases each with myself and three other siblings and headed off as missionaries to Hong Kong (then part of Britain; now part of China). It was definitely a transition from small city life and farms to nothing but concrete buildings and busy bodies all day long. There were even the sounds of horns honking in the middle of the night.

After some years living there, I headed back to the USA for College. I ended up in a tiny little town called Branson, MO and attended College of the Ozarks, which had a student body of a whopping 1,200 people, and agriculture was their bread and butter. Many of my friends there grew up on a farm or a ranch in deep rural areas. Being my home was 10,000 miles away, my friends naturally would invite me back to their farms and/or ranches. We would ride horses and sometimes bail hay. I fell in love with the simple, hardworking, lifestyle of family ranching/farming. I learned how to ride a horse properly and eventually one of my friend’s dad wanted me to ride the trouble horses and break them in a bit more.

Upon graduating, I returned to Hong Kong to temporarily help my dad set up and English Tutoring business. I proudly wore my cowboy gear in Hong Kong hoping one day to return to the USA and work on a ranch… but life slowly slipped away, and I was swallowed bit by bit by the city; like a snake eating an antelope.  I longed for the rural lifestyle where the deer and the antelope play. I began to evaluate my life and what I had known as a kid and in my youth and my college days.

I decided to move back to Colorado to work on a ranch or something. No one would hire me because I had no experience. My Bachelor of Science degree with a major in English was useless on a ranch. I worked Landscaping instead hoping it could turn into something more like moving cattle or herding sheep. I decided to visit this Ranch I always pass on the way to work. There I was introduced to Julie Ott who runs the egg business and market at the James Ranch. She told me I needed to research Allan Savory, Quivira Coalition, HMI, and a whole host of other things, then come back to her.

I went to work and explored everything. I read every paper that Allan Savory published and watched his Ted Talk. I was blown away on how desertified land can be brought back to life. I was mesmerized and in awe. My heart came alive and I wanted to learn this process. I went back to the James Ranch and met with Julie. Eventually, I was introduced to David James (the Patriarch) and I was hopeful that maybe he would hire me now. Instead, he told me that if I wanted to work for him, I would need to do an internship. He mentioned specifically Round River Resource Management Ltd. I applied and Louis Martin encouraged me to go to the “Regenerate Conference.” Then, I was denied an intern position. Marcos beat me out, but I didn’t give up, and here I am writing this long paper as you now decide to double check how many pages I actually wrote.

I’ve always been interested in agriculture since my childhood but circumstances and life and being kind of directionless took me a bit longer to finally decide to do something about it. And as I work and learn in this internship, it’s pretty clear I was born to bring dead land back to life and to bring dead hearts back to life.

I am hoping to learn how the business side of a cattle ranch works, and what it really involves. I like the model Louis Martin has; he does not own the cattle or the land, yet he manages cattle on leased land and uses this model to regenerate the land. I am hoping at the end of this internship I will have learned all the various skills on the Skills Chart and be able to have mastered most of them. I hope to have a better connection to the land and a better understanding of how to protect and nurture the land as well as how to build an effective business by managing the land and animals.

One day I envision managing a ranch where broken children can come and heal, regenerate, and rejuvenate their hearts, and they do this while learning how to heal, and regenerate and rejuvenate the broken land as well. I was born to bring dead land back to life and dead hearts back to life. I am learning the skills to manage the land and the herds. I hope this internship helps me learn the necessary skills and knowledge to move towards becoming one with the land. 

FINAL REFLECTIONS

The year 2020 will go down in history as possibly one of the craziest, yet most wonderful and beautiful years of my entire life. It all started when I got accepted to Round River Resource Management to be an apprentice at the Brett Gray ranch in Rush CO. I was super-duper ecstatic and began making plans to drive from California to Colorado to start my apprenticeship on site by March 23rd, 2020. I was happy that I was accepted and looking forward to learning everything I could about regenerative agriculture, but I had no idea what I was really getting into, having never worked on a ranch in this capacity before. 

I love driving and I love road trips, so I was excited to hit the road. Normally, I take my time driving. I stop and look at sites. I visit friends along the way. This time was much different. See, COVID-19 decided to rear its ugly head and cause a shutdown of the state of California. I left the day before everything shut down. I drove through a couple of snow storms, an ice storm, and an all-out blizzard at one point. I made it to my sisters in Colorado Springs with a couple days to spare before I had to start work at the ranch. 

When I finally started work, I believe I was completely useless and, on a few occasions, I think I was actually hindering what was happening rather than learning or helping the situation. In my first formal review with my mentor, Louis Martin, he expressed to me that my first 2 weeks working he thought he had made a huge mistake in hiring me. I remember on some nights coming home just crying because I felt so weak. I felt like I couldn’t do anything right and like I wasn’t cut out to be a manager in regenerative agriculture. I mean, I was only an apprentice with high hopes and high dreams to become a manager of regenerative agriculture bringing deadland back to life and living the rest of my life happily ever after with those around me. I did have big dreams. I still have big dreams. But those haunting first weeks of my apprenticeship brought me down to nothing. However, the good thing about being nothing and knowing how horrible I am at basic ranching skills and how much I don’t know at all, was to my advantage because I was able to start from the ground up and build a firm foundation that my mentors were laying out. 

I remember at one point after messing up again, I told Louis how weak I felt how horrible I felt about my lack of skills or lack of knowledge or lack of observation. In that first month, I had been attacked by a cow while I was trying to tag her calf. She chased me around the quad (four-wheeler), and at one point even came over the quad. I was terrified working in the pens with 1000-pound creatures who seemed to just want to run me over. I remember when we got 1500 yearlings in to sort them, I had to stand at the end of the alley opening a gate. All I remember is the yearlings coming full speed down the alley and just slamming on their brakes because I was there and they were not supposed to go through my gate. I was literally terrified out of my mind thinking…this is how I die.

I desperately wanted to learn as quickly as possible how to move cattle correctly and how to not be terrified in the alley or when giving vaccines or branding or castrating. I wanted to be excellent at everything I did and was told to do. If I were fixing a fence whether it be splicing new barbed wire or splicing new high tensile wire, I would make sure that it was done right. I was taught from an early age onward that excellence is how I live my life. Even though in that first month or two where I felt like I was doing such a poor job and felt like I was doing more harm than good, I was not going to give up. I kept striving to be excellent in everything that I did. 

Little by little I could see myself getting better and better at things that I used to be completely and utterly horrible at. Little by little I began to see skills and knowledge that I never had, take root in my heart and in my mind. Every day I would wake up ready to face whatever obstacles came my way. I was ready to become better and better and be excellent as well. 

I had two great mentors this season. One was a second-year apprentice, Marcos Baez. He taught me so much about stockmanship about pressure on the cows in the pens as well as using pressure when we move the cattle. He took time out of our moves just to show me what I was doing wrong. I am not one to be so proud as to hate being corrected, so I welcomed the corrections. If I was doing something wrong then I wanted to know about it. I didn’t want anyone to passively and politely explain to me what I was doing wrong, I wanted to hear the truth and I wanted to hear it directly so that I could address it directly. Thank God for Louis Martin and Marcos Baez. Even to this day, they are still direct with me and tell me what I am doing well and what I am doing wrong. 

I remember the worst day that I had working. It all started the day before, when I was asked to go with my colleague to drive in some T posts in gaps in the fence where the yearlings might get out. My colleague had to take off early that day and I was kind of grudgingly pounding the posts on my own and (to be honest) I had a bit of an attitude. There was a gate that was a bit torn up and I remember thinking I should do a temporary fix with a post until I  could come and fix the gate more permanently. However, because of my attitude, I let it slide and kind of did not hold true to my mantra of doing everything with excellence. The next day when I went to check the cattle, half of the 1500 yearlings had gone through that gate and into a paddock we don’t normally use. I saw half of the yearlings on two different sides of the creek running through the paddock and there was no way I was going to be able to get them in by myself. I had to call the boss. After Louis helped me get all of the yearlings back into where they should be, I began beating myself up. I was not paying attention to where I was going on my quad and I drove right through a high tensile wire electric fence line and broke it. It just so happened to be there was a herd of cattle in that pasture. I went back to headquarters to find some fencing supplies to fix the fence I had just driven through. 

Meanwhile, while that is happening, my mentor calls me and tells me that he picked up all the sick and lame yearlings that we treated who were in a small pasture next to the pens. He had picked them up almost at the perimeter of the ranch which means they had walked quite a ways probably trying to catch up with their friends the other yearlings who I had just put back into the paddock that they escaped from. Louis asked me why these cattle were all the way over there and I had realized that a couple of days before I had pulled  a dead yearling out of that small pasture and I had left the gate open…  

I can remember that day vividly. I messed everything up and it all began by compromising my work ethic and being excellent. I created a whole host of problems that I then had to deal with. I caused myself and my colleagues more stress than I needed to. I learned a valuable lesson that day as I skipped lunch and skipped dinner trying to resolve everything before the sun went down. The valuable lesson I learned is to never work begrudgingly or with an attitude because that will compromise the excellence that comes from what my hands and brain and heart and body can produce. 

What I value above any kind of work or learning are relationships. I believe that relationships are the most important part of why anybody does what they do. Relationships are the keys to success or failure. My mentor, Louis Martin, told me that all problems that occur in life are people problems. All problems are caused by people, but how I respond to those problems can mean the difference between success and failure. 

And I can tell you right now that I am succeeding big time. One of the big reasons I am succeeding is because I had mentors who were patient with me, who were understanding and who gave me good, solid, direct feedback. They did not sugarcoat anything.  I would not trade my experience for anything. I came here with the intention of learning how to manage a ranch in regenerative agriculture. In the beginning it was so rough and difficult, I don’t think I could have gotten to where I am right now without having great relationships with my mentors.   

Right now, what I really think I have learned from this apprenticeship is how to think holistically. I used to think in parts, and I would address an issue only in its part not in the whole. Now I understand that when I make decisions, no matter what decisions they are, I have to consider the whole picture, not just part of it. That has really challenged the way that I was taught to make decisions. Like I said before, I am here to learn and grow so I do not mind changing the way I have normally done things. 

My stockmanship is rocking and awesome. At least that is what I tell myself every day. It has improved significantly to the point that I was able to move 1,500 yearlings all by myself. I am not afraid of the cows anymore. I am still a little afraid of bulls, which I think is healthy. But I understand how to apply pressure and how to release that pressure, so I do not stress out the animal. I have become highly skilled at fixing any kind of fence. I have lost over 50 pounds since I started working in March. I am much healthier and have heaps of experience in daily chores and daily tasks and I feel much closer to reaching the goal that I set to one day become a manager of regenerative ranch. 

My mentor, Louis Martin, has been extremely helpful and proactive in helping me reach my goal. He has allowed me to take up a managerial position with supervision of our developed 25,000-acre ranch down in Boone, CO. I go down there three times a week, driving 1.5 hours each direction. I check on the cattle and I prepare the next pastures for the cattle. I ride fence and fix anything that is wrong with the fencing and troubleshoot water issues or electricity issues. I plan the grazing and the moves with supervision from Marcos and Louis.  

In the short time that I have had this apprenticeship, I have learned so much so quickly and so deeply. I credit my mentors for being patient and understanding and teaching me the ins and outs of regenerative agriculture. I came in as green as I could be…I have messed up plenty, but my victories have been more than my mistakes. I know 2020 has been a very stretching and growing and even sometimes horrible year for many people. For me, however, 2020 has been the best year of my entire life. I grew up in a foreign country and lived in the city most of my life. But I never gave up on my dream of becoming a rancher. It has taken a lot of sacrifice and a lot of change in the way I think and the way I am used to doing things. But these last 7 to 8 months have produced the most fruit in my life that I could ever even dream was possible. And I credit that to my mentors, to my Father God, and to myself being willing to change, accept criticism, and grow from my mistakes. I cannot thank the Quivira Coalition enough for having this program where apprentices can come to a ranch and learn and grow and in change the world one farm or one ranch at a time.        

This year has been a year of phenomenal change. But this year has been the most joyful, excellent, wonderful, stupendous, crazy, awesome, greatest, most excellent year I have ever experienced in my life. I am so excited to continue as a second-year apprentice through the Quivira Coalition as well as keeping the same mentors that I have. I get to manage an actual ranch with supervision and make the decisions as if I were an actual regenerative agriculture ranch manager–of course with supervision.

To me, this is the greatest opportunity anyone can ask for or be granted. I wish more people who have a heart for agriculture and a passion for agriculture would apply to become apprentices at a ranch somewhere. This apprenticeship has been one of the greatest jobs in my entire life. I have a teaching background. I used to be a teacher. Perhaps one day I will become a mentor and have a ranch of my own or continue to stay on with Round River. I would love nothing more than to teach young people about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, because that can only happen when the land is managed properly. 

I have so many things that I could share, and I could go on and on and on some more. All I know is I applied to become an apprentice and my entire life changed. My entire thinking changed. I became a better steward of the land and I have a better understanding of how holistic management works. I would not change this experience for the world. And I am excited to continue to press on and push myself even more to become an excellent steward of the land and to manage the land with great relationships and with a passion for life. I will continue to be excellent in everything I do.            

                         

 

 

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