New Agrarian VoicesLearn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.
Emily McCarthy, APPRENTICE, C & R Ranch, CA
End of Season Reflections
My mentor Charlotte loves to remind me that “it’s not a cake.” When we plan our grazing rotations and the cows end up moving earlier than expected—it’s not cake. When our fences aren’t perfectly straight and taught—it’s not a cake. When the cows do get past the fence and start munching on future paddocks—again, not a cake. In all the little details, like a teaspoon more of baking powder or a few too many stirs, that could ruin a cake, ranching (luckily) doesn’t have as stringent of a recipe. I’m walking away from this apprenticeship with the confidence to loosen an attachment to insignificant details. With such a large goal of building soil and having happy cows, I initially wanted to pick apart every last detail and make sure that everything was going right, according to plan, and seamlessly moving forward. My biggest lesson is that this hyper fixation is exhausting and not an appropriate approach.
I’ve gained such valuable experience in finding a balance between effective detail-oriented work (say, I want to make sure that my tractor bucket is completely latched on before picking up a load of chips) and grappling at details beyond my control. I learned that I can’t guarantee perennial seed germination but I can help create more suitable conditions for existing plants.
This apprenticeship has taught me that some days, months, or years can feel stagnant or moving away from the intended goal. It’s important that I learn not all work is going to feel like I’m rehabilitating soil and making strides in ecological restoration. Realistically, I’ll find accomplishment in welding a fence brace or moving cows to a new paddock on my own. Through my apprenticeship, I’ve learned that my passion for a bigger goal and work that will continue past my lifetime can (and must!) exist alongside more ordinary triumphs.
Reflecting on the past season, I’m still processing the weird mismatch of how much I learned but how incredibly fast the months flew by. The calves have grown so quickly. I remember the morning we went out to feed and saw the first calf head peek up from behind 205. After that morning in mid March, the calves kept hitting the ground. Looking out into the summer pasture I can remember tagging and vaccinating each calf. I remember watching 607 calf and being relieved when her calf immediately got up and nursed. My favorite memory from calving season is going for a walk through the herd just before sundown and seeing three wet calves on the ground. The calving season was exciting, beautiful, and absolutely humbling. At a certain point, I had to stop taking myself so seriously after fending off angry momma cows while covered in good ol’ yellow calf poop.
I also think about the number of holes I’ve dug. I’ve dug a lot. Holes for soil samples, holes for water lines, holes for trees, holes for fence posts… It feels so good to reflect and think about what I’m mentally capable of learning and physically capable of executing. I feel more confident in addressing a problem and getting to work. In my past farm jobs I’ve definitely mulled over every possible wrong turn in my decision making process. Maybe it was around my 100th shovel full of dirt that I started to trust my common sense and strength.
My biggest and most meaningful reflection on the past 8 months is my increased capacity to read a landscape. In all of my farming and ranching work, I always mention to my bosses that I want to come away from a season with a better understanding of how a whole operation works together. Admittedly, sometimes this intent slips away when getting an extra half hour of sleep appeals more than surveying the fields. During this apprenticeship with Roy and Charlotte, they wove in monitoring and observation into every workday. They created a space for every one of my questions about the land’s vegetation, birds, critters, geology, and recent history. I was able to see Roy and Charlotte’s intention to integrate the land’s pre colonized function with a healthy cattle operation. I am inspired by a ranch’s capacity to regenerate large amounts of land.
I’ve decided to stay in California and continue working with ranchers in the Central Valley. The drought and the fire pressure demand collaboration and action. I want to be a part of the response. I’ve had conversations and been a part of work on the East coast that address our agricultural systems and climate change. However, these conversations in the brittle and fast changing West seem to bring in diverse perspectives. I’m excited to partner with ranchers in ecological monitoring and grazing management plans to best address water scarcity and fuel load reduction. Ranchers, indigenous communities, and other land stewards have irreplaceable knowledge of the landscape. I’m hoping to join these conversations where these perspectives are valued and of influence to research and policy.
I want and need to keep learning about ranching, my surrounding landscape, and the history of the land. This apprenticeship was not entirely peachy, as there were times when I missed my family and friends back East, I was a different kind of exhausted, and the cows just would not respect my fence lines. That being said, these 8 months have been a gift. I am so thankful for my mentors, Roy and Charlotte, for letting me learn. I feel that I can be an asset in developing resource management strategies with other ranchers. If all else fails, at least I can run a hay rake with supervision and coax a calf out of a ditch.
REFLECTIONS AFTER THE FIRST MONTH
When prompted to write about my interest in agriculture, I was confident in being able to sit down at my computer and perfectly articulate an answer. I spent the majority of my time in college exploring agricultural studies and continued to farm postgrad. I brought my curiosity beyond academics and farm work by overloading my booklist and podcast queue. I had aligned my future career and livelihood aspirations with agricultural work.
When I opened a blank document, I hit an unanticipated pause. I had no idea what to say or where to start. In the following weeks, I drafted and deleted paragraphs dissecting my upbringing, my college experience, and my post grad life— all in trying to find the exact catalyst of my interest. Out in the field, my mind tip toed back to the minimized document on my home screen.
One morning, Roy, Charlotte, and I moved the herd into a new paddock and stood back to watch them celebrate new ground. We laughed as they kicked up their back legs and wriggled against the oak trees. We tossed them hay from the trailer and walked around to scout runny noses and signs of hoof rot. After checking the animals I took a closer look at the established perennials breaking dormancy. I saw the uneaten hay trampled around the bunch grasses and dotted with cow pies. In later reflection, I finally realized that I had been overthinking and overcomplicating my interest in agriculture. My interest in agriculture doesn’t stem from a defined reason or experience. It grows in my daily observations and complementary reflection.
This reflection leads me to constantly evaluate and reshape my interest. Sometimes I set aside time to journal, other times I gather my thoughts between daily tasks. I remember my earliest reflections revolved around vegetable propagation. I wanted to protect baby carrots from purslane and rescue tomatoes from their own jungle vines. My interests and methods were meticulous and anxious for control. I continued farming and realized that I couldn’t create perfect vacuums for every single plant. My reflection prompted me to shift my observations into a systemic perspective. I began to ask questions that addressed conditions for growth rather than just the final product.
I was joyfully overwhelmed by the freedom to explore whatever came to the forefront of my curiosity. Soil tilth? Worm counts? Farmer perceptions of climate change? Sure! It was all fair game and undoubtedly intertwined. I also had the room to honestly criticize my identity and role in my landscape. Alongside my ecological learning, I could recognize my responsibility as a land steward and work to actively decolonize my agricultural perspective. I could also reflect on my learning process itself and address the privilege that delayed my lessons in environmental racism. My interests and how my interests constructed my identity were continually put into question.
I hope that my NAP apprenticeship keeps pushing me to be uncomfortable. As a young person in agriculture, I have so much to learn about the practice and politics of working with the land. Working alongside Roy and Charlotte in a holistic grazing system has already taught me new skills (like welding and moving cattle!) and emphasized each skill’s part of a whole. In addition to the physical work, I continue to find myself in conversations and the headspace to think about my interactions with my landscape. I know that I need to keep evaluating my interests, asking questions, and reflecting on the answers. I feel that I’m in the perfect place to do so.
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