New Agrarian VoicesLearn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.
Erik Franklin, APPRENTICE, Blake Ranch, MT
To succinctly sum up and report everything I have learned during this apprenticeship would be a task far beyond my abilities as a writer. So instead, for everyone’s sake, I’ll only attempt to talk about one thing I’ve learned, the one that will impact me the most.
If I’ve learned anything during my time working on the ranch, it is that good ranchers (and good people) are ones that recognize the scope of their own abilities. And, as anyone who has worked in production agriculture will attest, this job is uniquely suited for teaching you about your own abilities.
This apprenticeship forced me to come face-to-face with what I am capable of. And, on a near daily basis, it showed me what I am not. It showed me that there were many things that I did not understand, that I had not experienced, and that I would fail repeatedly to learn. I was challenged to go beyond what I previously knew of myself, and in doing so, it taught me more about my place in the world. At various times, I was humbled, embarrassed, and just plain beaten. Often, I was all of these things at once.
The ranch can often feel like a living breathing entity unto itself— its own world, self-contained yet boundless. And on the bad days, the ones where you are given a particularly cruel lesson on exactly what you are capable of, it can feel like the ranch feeds primarily on ill-advised self-confidence and misbegotten plans. It is a job that consumes those who love it. Every day, the rancher sets about the impossible task of controlling nature, predicting her moods and tending to her needs. The rancher attempts to impose order on an inherently chaotic universe. More often than not, they are utterly unsuccessful. Even the triumphs are caveated by the knowledge that the work can never be done, never completed.
And yet with each new day, the rancher sets about their work all the same. This is because in exchange for all the blood, sweat, and tears, the ranch provides a nourishment to its stewards that very few people could ever hope to understand without firsthand experience. In a world that often seems obsessed with success, the ranch reminds us that failure is okay. That having limits, and continually pushing against them is okay. That it is okay not to know, to try something new, and to mess up a simple activity over and over. It taught me that it was okay to laugh at myself, sometimes there’s nothing else you can do. I learned that one’s limits are not concrete, incapable of being amended or expanded. That we can continually better ourselves by seeking out that which we cannot do. Sun Tzu told us “know thy enemy and know yourself…” The smart rancher understands that all too often, they are one and the same.
This simple lesson has been of the most profound importance to my life. I have come to believe that every person should spend more time at the edge of their abilities, that they may come to intimately understand what they capable of. Now I can operate in the world knowing exactly what I am good at, what I am bad at, and what I best not try again. Amidst the bitterly cold mornings and long hot days, the seemingly endless hours, while watching cows break through fence for the umpteenth time, during all of this I learned a tremendous amount about myself. For that, I will be forever thankful for this job, the land I was entrusted to work, the animals that filled my days with joy, and the people that make this all worth it.
For now, I intend to continue my life on the ranch so that I may continue to enjoy the rewards it provides. As I enter my third year out here, I find that I encounter less and less that is new. Everything has begun to take shape; I am beginning to understand this place’s patterns and habits. But still, each day I get the chance to learn about and improve myself. We just went through one of the hottest, driest summers on record. One filled with grasshoppers, record-setting heat, and water sources that ran dry for the first time in living memory. All of this was set against the backdrop of dense wildfire smoke, a constant reminder of the dire state our world is currently in. I know that next year will, more than likely, feature more of the same. We seem to be entering into a future where the agricultural industry will face environmental pressures beyond the scope of our current imagination.
Yet, in the face of all this, I can still detect a great deal of optimism from the community that surrounds me. It is a world full of industrious, positive, hardworking people who show up for others as much as themselves. More than anything, it is full of people who know what they are capable of, and who work hard every day to have an impact on the world around them. I was once told that ideas are only worth the men and women that believe in them. If the people I have met in the regenerative community serve as any indication as to the worth of the ideas behind sustainable agricultural practices, we should all be sharing in their optimism for the future.
REFLECTIONS AFTER THE FIRST MONTH
A little over a year ago, I was enrolled in a philosophy PhD program at Florida State University. I found the work challenging, my colleagues inspiring, and the future terrifying. A large part of philosophical discourse is dedicated to debating how the world could be a better place and how people should act to bring that idealized world about. I just wanted to know where I fit into it all. I wanted to do something to bring about the reality philosophers spend so much time arguing about. My anxiety rose in proportion to the task I had set before myself. Then, all at once, everything came into focus.
I was introduced to a small, but thriving community of like-minded individuals who were passionate about organic, regenerative, and sustainable agricultural practices. Their energy and desire helped me see that philosophy was not the only lens through which one could conceive of a better world. I learned that a day of hard, honest labor, can connect someone to the place they live in unspeakable ways. I had spent so much time thinking about how I ought to live, but I couldn’t help but be confronted with the fact that I knew almost nothing about what sustained my actual existence. I needed to know more about the food I ate, the land I lived on, the people I was surrounded by. A life in agriculture was the only route I saw forward.
In retrospect, my decision making process seems much more concise than it actually was. In reality, I was lost for a long time. I agonized about giving up on the path I had already embarked upon, but I knew I needed something more. In the end, like many times previous in my life, philosophy gave me the answer. I was reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden when I came across the following quote:
To be a philosopher is not simply to have subtle thoughts, not even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.
I realized that, in pursuing my life in agriculture, I need not give up philosophy. In fact, if Thoreau is to be believed, I would be inevitably drawn closer to the practice of philosophy as he so beautifully envisioned it.
So, I have set out in this apprenticeship to live the life Thoreau described. Not so much for the lifestyle he promoted, but for the person I hope to become. To be perfectly honest, I have no idea whether this apprenticeship will make me a better philosopher. However, I do know that if I can learn to live a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust, I will be all the better for it.
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