New Agrarian VoicesLearn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.
Julia Loman, APPRENTICE, Richards Ranch, CA
REFLECTIONS AFTER THE FIRST MONTH
My interest in agriculture began in the city of Detroit, Michigan, of all places. Fresh out of college, I found myself helping out at a tiny urban garden and learning how to grow vegetables. I discovered the joyous rush that comes from preparing garden beds, shoveling compost, and getting myself totally covered in soil. I felt immense pride upon seeing the first baby sprouts pop out of the ground, and tasted a carrot straight from the ground for the first time. At the time, I was working to maintain formal gardens– what I thought to be my dream job. However, something wasn’t lining up right for me, and with time I realized that I would much rather be growing food or restoring ecosystems than maintaining carefully manicured display gardens.
I deepened my agricultural knowledge at Allegheny Mountain Institute in rural Virginia, where I spent two growing seasons. It was there that I realized how much joy it gave me to fully commit my days to growing food and raising animals, and that I could handle the hard work. I discovered that I love how much creativity and problem solving is involved in farming, and that there are endless questions to be asked, with as many answers as there are people to answer them. I learned about the nuances of food production, different types of agriculture, and how systems come together. Particularly, I became fascinated by the way animals can close the loop by replenishing soil nutrients, and as we began rotating our handful of cows, that this quality could be used to improve the health of the land.
As a former biology major whose main interests were systems ecology and forestry, I realized that working on restoring ecosystems through agriculture could bring together many of my interests.
I chose to participate in the New Agrarian Program largely because of the commitment to land stewardship that ties together the ranches in the program. I knew I wanted an intensive learning experience in animal husbandry, but that ecological restoration is equally important to me. Richards Ranch, where I am apprenticing this year, hosts courses with the Savory Institute and is Ecological Outcome Verified (EOV); they monitor pastures closely and are involved with several research groups. Even better, they are still transitioning to regenerative practices, which means I can see parts of the ranch that are responding positively to new methods as well as problem areas that they are still troubleshooting. During the course of the season, I am looking forward to being exposed to all aspects of care for the cattle, sheep and pigs, and to become familiar with the main concerns and day-to-day (care) of these animals. I hope to come away with an understanding of how to implement rotational grazing to foster more ecological diversity and improve the resilience of the land. Eventually, I hope to manage an operation combining perennial food crops and rotationally grazed animals, and I believe I will have a solid foundation for that future once I complete the New Agrarian Program.
As I walked through the pastures for my first tour of the ranch with my mentor Carrie, she showed me ephemeral creeks and springs, small hidden water sources, and treasured groves of good feed for animals. “These will all dry up in the summer,” she said, and I couldn’t quite believe it. Standing in a cool April drizzle, electric green hills dotted with oak trees surrounding us, it seemed impossible that it could ever be any different. I think the seasonal death I imagined still featured green grass. Even when the rains were far behind us in June, I noted the heavy dew in the mornings, and it felt like we would pull through the summer with moisture on our boots.
A couple months in, I was starting to get the hang of things: the animals moved around on a schedule, more or less, and while there was plenty of feed–green grass– on the ground, everything was running fairly smoothly. All of a sudden, as summer began to hit full force, we began to run into problems. The sheep, who had been very docile and well-behaved during lambing, started breaking through their fence every day. Some days, it seemed like they were getting out every hour– it was incredibly frustrating. After many days and weeks spent testing, mending, and setting up electric fence again and again, it felt like there was nothing to be done about the problem. Our neighbors, who were having the same problem and also at their wits end, shot (and processed for their own use) a couple of the troublemakers among their sheep. Carrie and Dan decided to sell half the herd, including most of the older animals– a solution that hadn’t even crossed my mind. Frustration and too much time spent dealing with one group of animals necessitated a change.
Larger scale problem solving is vital to the ranch and creates a strong and flexible environment. I saw this kind of thinking again when the pigs started escaping. We tried a few simple fixes with their current set-up, but they continued to escape. After switching to a netted fence and shorter moves, the pigs are staying in their sections… for now. I’m learning that just because a system worked before, doesn’t mean it will continue to work indefinitely. The sheep and the pig set-ups may need to change again. New problems will arise, and necessitate creative solutions. We can’t assume an idea won’t work until we’ve tried it. It’s this flexibility that allows a small ranch to stay afloat and test new ideas.
June and July came, and it was hard to see the plants start to die. In Virginia, where I’d lived for most of the previous decade, the whole summer is lush and green until frost hits in October or November. I found myself mourning the wildflowers and fresh grass.
One day in early fall (which still feels very much like summer here) I noticed that cows’ pasture looked pretty beaten down and I asked Carrie about it. She explained to me that as long as we left a few stubby inches of grass on the ground, the pasture would recover in the spring. Since most of the grasses are annuals at this point, there were few perennial grasses that could suffer from being over-eaten. And of course, the whole ranch looked pretty well fertilized with cow pies teeming with dung beetles. The spring and summer pastures of the following year would tell us how well we managed the land, Carrie told me.
In October– at about six months without a good rain– aside from shifting some animals around to stay in pastures with enough water, everybody was doing okay. We were supplementing with hay, but the cattle and sheep were mostly still living on feed on the ground. At that point, never having seen anything more than a few weeks without rain, I realized how incredible this was. Despite looking quite different from the early spring ranch, this is resilience.
And I found a quiet strength in myself as well. On a September weekend alone at the ranch, I noticed that some of the cattle had mud on their legs– five months since the last rain. I drove around to their water sources– a handful of ponds scattered around the pasture– and found them to be mostly mud pits with little pools of water. I’d never encountered a problem like this on my own, and Carrie and Dan were out of cell reception. I panicked for a moment, but quickly started making a list of steps I needed to take to make sure that the cattle had water and the newborn calves were safe from the deep mud, and completing them one at a time. While I didn’t handle the situation perfectly (300 cattle on one trough is way too many and they busted it!), I was able to make my way through the first steps of handling the crisis before I was able to reach my mentors. I realized that day how much I had learned about the animals’ needs and problem solving on the ranch.
Of course, 2020 and COVID-19 brought its own set of challenges. The loneliness of rural life was amplified as I reduced my trips off the ranch to one grocery trip a week. Often, I longed to be closer to my friends and family even though I wouldn’t have really been able to spend time with them in the way I was accustomed. At times, the combination of the heat, hard work and loneliness felt like too much to bear. But as the weeks and months passed, I saw myself rising to the challenge and knew I’d end the season better equipped than ever to handle whatever comes next.
Fires ravaged California; the dusty heat and drought were relentless for much of my time here. I began to see that although we (and the animals) were feeling the stress of the season, we were okay. We would make it. Even if a fire tore through the ranch, we had a plan for ourselves and the animals and (after some reassuring) I felt as confident as one can that we’d survive. In the face of even greater pressures of drought, climate disaster, and economic collapse, I don’t see any other way forward but to build resilience in soil, people, and animals. We will be rewarded if we can care for each other and the earth in the coming, crucial years. Resilience is built slowly, rather than achieved as a static goal. It’s observing thoughtfully, and taking action. And if we’re able to concentrate on building it, it is resilience that will allow us to survive.