New Agrarian Voices

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

Ian Trupin, APPRENTICE, XK Bar Ranch, CO

TAKE A PEEK INTO THE DAILY LIFE OF AN APPRENTICE BY READING THEIR RESPONSES TO THESE QUESTIONS.

 

What is something you do every day? I let the chickens out, collect eggs, feed them, and shut them in every day. Most of my tasks I do daily, such as irrigating, but taking care of the chickens is the most consistent, since they need to be taken care of even on my days off.

What items do you always take with you to your work day? I always take irrigation boots and a shovel!

What does a typical day look like? Is there a general rhythm even if days fluctuate? I start my mornings by tending to the chickens and feeding the cat, having breakfast, and making the irrigation rounds before lunch. Afternoons tend to be more independent, filled with working on various ranch projects. I end my day by spending time working on the vegetable garden. 

What is your favorite place on the ranch? I like the homestead area. It’s very cozy and familiar, full of companion animals to keep me company, and I put more time into it than any other comparable area. The creek pasture is also nice, with its big trees, cool breezes, and soft green grass. I also find the sound of running water very relaxing.

How are you getting to know the community around you? I mostly meet folks through water arrangements and monitoring, which can sometimes be contentious. People also recognize my mentor’s pickup truck and will occasionally pause on the road to say hi. Meat deliveries and the farmers market offer other opportunities to meet people, but these are mostly not immediate neighbors.

What is a skill you have learned that you now feel confident in? Driving standard transmission has been a big growth area for me, along with setting tarp dams. Giving commands to the cattle dogs was never hard, but I think I now know the best words and tones to use.

What is something about your job that challenges you? Irrigation and water management remain hard for me. I find it hard to keep a mental image of the ditch setup in my mind, and I am not reliable or confident yet in making most judgement calls. I second guess myself a lot, but I keep learning! 

What is something that has surprised you about the experience so far? I did not expect to spend so much time and energy on water, especially relative to the amount of time we spend directly working with the livestock. 

What are you looking forward to in the rest of the season? I’m looking forward to the later summer, with peak garden production, the center pivot irrigation project finished, and possibly visits from friends and a woofer who is also a friend. I look forward to being much more competent later in the season and increasingly able to do more without constantly asking for guidance from my mentor, Tony. 

REFLECTIONS AFTER THE FIRST MONTH

I am mostly a city boy, but with more childhood exposure to agriculture than many. Growing up, my family moved around between the United States, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania, and from a young age it was easy for me to notice the clear differences between these places. The African countries seemed much more agriculturally-oriented to me, because so many more people were involved in agriculture as a way of life. After moving more permanently to the United States, I felt like an outlier among my piers in that my family had a large garden, which more than provided for our vegetable needs during the summer. I loved eating the produce, though I often felt like a victim of injustice, because none of my friends were forced to weed and water during their summer vacations. On the other hand, visits to Vermont, where I sometimes joined in the haying on a neighbor’s farm, and return visits to Tanzania, where I occasionally helped feed my grandmother’s cows or helped with the corn, made it clear to me how much more arduous real, subsistence farmwork could be. I thought stacking hay and milking cows was fun, but many of these activities were also itchy, hot, and uncomfortable, and didn’t make me want to become a farmer.

Growing into a teenager, I became more and more interested in development, though not necessarily agriculture. In college I studied sociology and the role of cooperatives in development, and then worked for a few years as a social justice organizer getting colleges and universities to divest their endowments from fossil fuels and private prisons and reinvest in local economies. It was through this job that I became more seriously interested in agriculture, after learning about how some colleges had begun investing in a rash of “land grabs”—deals where often corrupt governments in developing countries sold large tracts of the most productive land to foreign investors and governments, often forcing out local residents in the process. I went back to Tanzania, and interned with an organization doing land rights work, particularly with pastoralist communities, and then applied to master’s programs at agriculture schools. After being a paid organizer, who was often among one of the people in the room least directly affected by the issues I was working on, it seemed to me that people can usually organize themselves better than an outsider can, and that I would be more effective if I had the training to support grassroots organizations and individuals.

At UC Davis I studied international agricultural development, with a focus on rangeland management, and my time there, as well as my continued reading and study on my own, convinced me that agriculture, and the intersection between food systems, ecology, and social justice is where I want to continue to work. I also reaffirmed my view that pure academia and basic research are not for me. Coming to this apprenticeship, my biggest goal now is finding out if I can see myself working on the things I care most about as a producer. In the world of regenerative ranching I am starting to see many examples of people who I might think of as role models, in that they do important advocacy and social or environmental justice work, but also produce things that people want and need, and support themselves. Maybe that could be me someday!

FINAL REFLECTIONS

The best catch-all term to describe the progress I feel I have made in the past seven months is confidence. I might also add self-sufficiency and competence as runner-ups—though it’s possible Tony might have disagreed with using the latter term at times. In short, I see myself quite differently from the person who drove from Vermont to western Colorado last March in the middle of a spreading pandemic.

In the most immediate terms, I can attribute this difference to hard skills—driving manual transmission, fixing fences, laying pipe to level—applying muscle, judgement, and dexterity to accomplish real things. I sometimes wonder how tasks I once found intimidating have started to feel like second nature. While I still feel like a novice in most areas, I feel like I have laid a foundation that I can build upon as I continue down a career path in regenerative agriculture.

Beyond discrete skills, I also feel a different relationship with the things I have worked on and with. I had always felt intimidated by large animals. This feeling was reinforced by my brief stints volunteering at the beef barn at UC Davis, where young bulls, used to pushing timid students around, sometimes chased me over paddock fences during morning cattle checks. I found tasks like branding, tagging calves, and horn trimming deeply unpleasant, and wondered if I was really cut out to work with livestock. This has completely changed since I have been at XK Bar Ranch. I wouldn’t say I love branding now, but I have seen what a small proportion of the work these more intense activities can be, depending on the type of operation. Most of the time I spend around the cattle is related to them, moving their paddock fencing, or simply observing them. I feel like I understand them much better, and have come to appreciate their consistency and predictability.

Another area of unease for me at the beginning of the apprenticeship was operating and maintaining machinery. From chainsaws to tractors, combustion engines were always a mystery and source of fear to me. Tony was an ideal instructor in this regard. He never asked too much of me, always started with safety protocols, and never hesitated to repeat instructions or demonstrations if I wasn’t getting something.

On a broader scale, I’ve seen my relationship with being out of doors change. It is a drastically different feeling to work all day outside, and come indoors for breaks, rather than the other way around. I may never feel at home with the dry, cool, precipitous landscape of the West Elk foothills the way I do with the landscapes I grew up in, but being in the wind, sun, dirt, and vegetation, day after day, does feel comfortable and normal to me in a way it never has before.

This experience of living off the land has made me realize for the first time in my life that agriculture—farming and ranching—is a viable path for me. I thought I needed to somehow bring it back to an office job in the end, perhaps working in extension or international development, but now I see myself as a land steward in training. I think feeding people and taking care of the land is the highest calling I could ever imagine. My ideas of how to actualize this are constantly evolving, but one of them would be to learn more about slaughtering and meat processing, and to eventually start a finishing ranch with on-site processing in Tanzania, which is my mother country and a place I have always intended to return to.

I think that as a meat finisher and processor I could work with pastoralist communities, who are increasingly vulnerable in the face of climate change, development, and globalization. Restricted to smaller and smaller areas of land due to agricultural intensification, gazetting of rangelands for conservation and hunting, and population growth, their number one survival strategy—mobility—is becoming less and less effective. These changes coincide with worsening droughts and livestock diseases becoming more globalized. To add to this, they are not well positioned to take advantage of rising middle class meat consumption, as their animals are stressed by worsening conditions, and do not command good prices. As individual households, without unity or organization, they simply take on more livestock, to compensate for the low value of each animal, resulting in overgrazing of rangelands and conflict with crop farmers. The light impact of thousands of years of pastoralism are the main reason East Africa is still so rich in megafauna, but under current trends this ecological wisdom will be lost in my lifetime. If, however, pastoralists had better ways to market their meat, for better prices, they would be better able to reduce the size of their herds while making the investments necessary to continue their way of life into the future.

Whether or not I specifically realize this dream of mine, I hope to combine livestock production work with both ecological stewardship and social justice in the future.

Put in such idealistic terms, it sounds simple, but I think that my apprenticeship has also given me a better sense of the challenges I will continue to face along this path. The most immediate challenge I faced in this apprenticeship is also one that I hope to address the most easily in the future. Loneliness hit me very early on in the internship. While the novelty of my daily routine and the landscape took the edge off of it, the small number of people I saw regularly—often it was just Tony—and the distance from my friends and family took a toll on me through the spring. Summer changed things, however, when I made new friends through weekly farmers markets, and eventually had woofers, friends, and even my sister visit. This really showed me the other side of rural loneliness, which for me is the amount of joy that can come out of being able to enjoy this lifestyle with even just a small number of like-minded people. I have also come to embrace nightly zoom calls, and lunchtime phone conversations, and ways to stay connected with the people I cannot have nearby. I am hopeful that in the future, I will continue to be able to build community in places where there may not be that many people. Certainly the attenuation of the current pandemic will help.

What I expect will remain more difficult, is achieving balance between the physical and emotional demands of this work, and personal well-being. Particularly given how marginal of a livelihood most regenerative ranching seems to be, I do not expect to avoid financial stress, or the anxieties of having a business where so many things can go wrong so easily. I also do not expect to avoid daily fatigue, intimidating projects, or the pressure of having to make educated guesses and figure things out as I go. I think I have learned a lot about these types of challenges from observing my mentor, who finds ways to turn the relatively small size of his operation into its strength, as it provides flexibility and resiliency in uncertain times. But having a small operation means that you cannot afford to outsource many things to experts, and have to be the expert yourself in situations where a larger operation with a bigger budget would just hire someone. I hope to have a lot more mentorship, and observe a few more strategies for surviving, and hopefully thriving, as a regenerative rancher, before I set out on my own.

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