New Agrarian VoicesLearn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.
DeAnne Gabriel, APPRENTICE, Indian Ridge Farm, CO
REFLECTIONS AFTER THE FIRST MONTH
I am a woman who follows her heart. Every time I feel the pull of something new, I marvel at how lucky I am to get to go with the flow and see where it will take me. From a life of networking and travel, to gardening and cooking and baking, to leading people on bikes through the southwest, to the more recent adventure of 16 months of bike focused travel; these things have all led me to Indian Ridge Farm to maybe perhaps fit the pieces together to create a sustainable and enjoyable life for myself.
About a year ago, the question was posed to my partner Dave and I as to weather or not we would want to apply to be the next interns on the farm. With the plan to ride our bikes from Norwood, CO westward to the Pacific Ocean and then north to Canada on the docket, there was plenty of time ahead for pondering. And ponder I did. I kept coming back to thinking about what is really important to me. What feeds my soul. And also, what role I can play in the greater good of the people. I asked myself what I have to offer the world.
I believe it is a matter of love. Love of the outdoors and being able to immerse myself in it, the love of good food and family with the time to enjoy both. The desire to share my love and enthusiasm for things with others. The privilege to live in a diverse and dramatic landscape that I’ve come to love. These things inspire me to figure out how to combine a lifestyle that supports my personal happiness with also being a steward of the earth, living in harmony with my surroundings. And at the end of the day, where better a place to find that than on a holistically minded family farm?
I’m in! We applied, went through some interviews, second guessed ourselves briefly, and here we are: one month into our internship, learning all about chickens, collecting eggs, patching fences, eating great food, prepping garden beds with Dave’s sister Anne, sharing time and space with her young boys, digging weeds, hauling compost, planting seeds, getting to know the land, waking up with the sun, asking all kinds of questions of our fantastic mentors, and doing our chores.
It’s not always easy. I’m tired and forgot to put sunscreen on a tiny patch of my shoulder, it turns out layers make me kind of uneasy at first, and living in a tiny house with my partner isn’t always pure bliss. But these are some challenges that are all leading me towards things that I want to learn and overcome. There is a comfort in the routine, rhythm, and ritual to be found here. I look forward to whatever comes next and hope that this season helps me to open my next chapter.
When I signed up for the apprenticeship at Indian Ridge Farm, I had an idea of what to expect. I had already been to my operation several times over the years and was familiar with my mentors and other farm residents. I had lived in the town that the operation sits just outside of and had some friends locally I was excited to share my farm life with. I was familiar with the neighboring area that I would explore with some of my free time. I had lived without modern conveniences before. Even with this potential leg up on my situation, it occurred to me quite quickly that I was still unprepared for all that was to be learned from farm life.
Our season started off with Covid surprising us visiting family in Sedona, AZ. It was mid March and this was to be a last hurrah of mountain biking and leisure before farm life hit us full swing. We ended up having to quarantine there in order to start working at our operation safely, 2 weeks past our prescribed start date. We were kept at a distance and had separate facilities until we were able to be tested. This was not the most smooth transition, but we all did what needed to be done in order to feel like the farm family would stay Covid free and in full operation. I realized immediately that this was not going to be the farm life I imagined with friends and family coming and going, sharing in the work and the joy of our fruitful farm life. In retrospect, this fact loomed over everything we did all season. Typically, a lot of the more constant chores had been shared by community members and volunteers from a local food distributor. People would come for CSA box packing, chicken processing, on farm pick-ups, weeding parties, brush pile burns, all these fun things that are great to have a community to share with. We used to be these people, coming to help with tilling and harvesting and washing vegetables. And now as residents, this was something that could not be looked forward to any longer. We found ourselves alone and isolated with the farm crew on what turned out to be a very fortunate yet challenging sanctuary during these uncertain times.
Since we started work a tad late in the spring, 2 batches of chicks were already being cared for in the brooder. The main focus of our apprenticeship was on the care of what turned out to be around 2,300 broiler chickens. Aka, meat birds. These birds spent 9 weeks on the farm pecking and scratching, pooping and growing. So when I met these little chicks in the brooder, I could not believe that a significant portion of their lives were already over. At 2 weeks they still have the classic cute and fluffy look to them, yet have almost lived a quarter of their lives. Still not looking particularly delicious though.
It was impressed upon us right away that chickens and all livestock require a certain rhythm, ritual, and routine to their care. Little birds in the brooder need to be kept warm and dry. They like to be fed at the same time every day, with their rations carefully monitored so they do not grow too fast or overeat in order to avoid health complications that would set back their optimal growth. They need to always have access to water which we added a chicken probiotic to. The chicks should be checked on often throughout the day to make sure everything is status quo, without any signs of stress or any basic needs not being met. This ended up being one of my favorite places to be on the farm. I loved to take in the tiniest little fluffy peepers, dipping all 130 peeper beaks in water and introducing them to their new home, witnessing their first out of box steps, which were sometimes a full out run. Watching them grow more and more voracious at feeding time is rewarding, as they lost their downy yellow look and began to transform into an adult white chicken. After a couple of weeks, we would run them from the smaller back bays of the brooder to the larger front bays and start feeding them gleaned greens from the garden to get them used to foraging greenies. This is such a tangible process that required attention to detail and a tight schedule.
Once these little guys started to resemble a real potentially edible in the future chicken at the age of 4 weeks, they would get booted out of the brooder and introduced to our 2 acre pasture, fenced in for protection from predators, mainly foxes and skunks, but also bears or large cats. Here, chickens were moved in their pens every morning to evenly disperse their manure, ensuring the continued health of the pasture while offering fresh forage to the chicken. What an elegant and symbiotic relationship that has been created! Here is a place that I have learned more than I originally thought. Witnessing a fully functional multi species rotational grazing method taught me a lot about the benefits of having a diverse farm family working together for optimal farm health. Not only did we raise chickens to a delicious and healthy adulthood, we were also contributing to the health of the surrounding land. This was brought even more full circle in the coming months when we dumped gallons of chicken blood, feathers, and heads on the compost pile. But maybe I am getting ahead of myself.
Keeping birds out on the pasture happy and healthy would sometimes seem like an easy task; moving pens, keeping drinkers full, timely and accurate feeding schedules. No problem. Then there are all of the other factors of life. A huge wind comes and blows a pen right off of your chickens. There are mysterious digging marks at the fence line and one half eaten chicken running around in its pen. Some chickens seem to be permanently dwarfed. One chicken that appeared perfectly healthy yesterday is feet in the air dead this morning. The grass is too long for your chickens to eat, so you put a cow out there. The dogs that are supposed to be protecting the chickens try to eat one. Then you introduce 85 turkeys. These are the things that keep us on our toes and also offer for an exciting learning and living experience. We take a step back and ponder the best solution. Or maybe the situation just calls for acceptance and the grace to sigh and move on, thanking the chicken for its life in the face of its untimely demise. It is in some of these increasingly common situations that I found more learning than is on the surface. Do I have the grace to accept things I can not change? Do I have the patience to figure out the best solution? Can I be flexible enough to wisely consider all of my options? Am I humble enough to ask for help or admit fault? I have found that most every farm lesson is applicable to my everyday life functioning.
If brooder management and pasture care was not the main focus of the week, it was working with the layer hens and having more time to help with the one acre CSA garden on site. Rotational grazing was a continued theme with the layers as well. They are kept in portable chicken tractors that can be moved to various parts of the farm that need some grazing and the systematic application of chicken poop. The chickens were moved and then given a temporary electric fence yard out one of the doors where they could forage until they ate down the old vegetation and left their rich manure. We’d move the fence yard all around the trailer until all of the viable vegetation was eaten. Move again and repeat. It has been very rewarding to see little grass and native plant shoots spring up after even the slightest bit of moisture hits the ground where the chickens grazed. Unfortunately, with the drought this year sometimes spring forth was all that they could muster before they dried out and went back into dormancy, awaiting the next bit of moisture. But the results were still tangible.
And lest we not forget the eggs! At peak production, we were collecting, washing, sorting, and boxing over 200 eggs per day. I have happily and thankfully eaten my weight in eggs this summer. Lucky me. The eggs get stored according to size and then distributed to our CSA members and local stores for resale to the community. Seeing the way these laying hens give back to the landscape while providing nutrient dense food to the community is another very tangible way to view the symbiotic relationships we can support between land, animal, and vegetation. I am thankful to have had the inspiring opportunity to witness these relationships first hand. It really makes me think that some of the secret to helping end hunger and malnutrition is bringing this understanding to more people, hopefully inspiring capable people to feed and be fed in more responsible and beneficial ways.
Being the apprentice on layer duty usually meant there could be a little more free time in one’s schedule to help out in the garden. Anne, along with her two knowledgeable young boys, were our garden mentors. The boys mainly started out with just asking me,“Did our mom tell you to do that?” But as the season progressed, I became a more knowledgeable vegetable farmer and gained their trust. I planted, weeded, watered, thinned, raked, picked, hoed, and dug beets, carrots, potatoes, garlic, onions, cilantro, parsley, turnips, radishes, kohlrabi, beans, peas, tomatoes, squash, melons, cabbages, and at least a dozen kinds of greens. We got to see first hand a working model of succession and rotational planting. Salad mix was planted every week to ensure there would always be enough for the CSA members. Baby kales, bokchoy, and cabbages were seeded regularly so there would be plants ready for transplanting when a bed was ready. Tomatoes were pruned and up-potted in preparation for planting come warmer nights. It was so rewarding to have such a huge and productive garden yielding all of this delicious and healthy food. It fed so many people. The hoop houses are still feeding people.
This part of the farm is what really made me happy. I prefer to eat vegetables over chicken. Yet, seeing how integral all of the farm’s animal population is for the garden made me realize that one without the other is not a complete and optimal system. All of the animals on the farm eat from the garden during their lives and all of the animals also contribute back to the garden. The goats and pigs share a fence line with the garden. When you head out to the garden to do some wedding or maintenance, they perk up and make their way over to you, looking for handouts. And what they don’t eat, goes to the compost. The young chicks eat leafy greens before they go out to the pasture. When we processed them, all of their guts and feathers and heads went back into the garden via compost. It is a full circle. The health and wellbeing of everything depends on everything else.
It has been quite a season. I am left with a job well done feeling and a golden nostalgic glow even though raising and caring for such a diverse amount of critters on an ever-changing and unpredictable landscape was scary. I have so many questions and uncertainties about what farming means to me as well as what farming means to the world’s population. I try to focus on what I do know instead. It brings me hope that there are conversations about the future of food and organizations dedicated to educating and inspiring the next generation of farmers. I know that I want to be able to feed myself clean and nutritious food and want to help insure all people have access to do the same. I want to wake up feeling a sense of pride and purpose in what I do. I want to leave the world a better place and be the change that I want to see in the world. It does seem that farming would be a way to accomplish these goals, but who knows?
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