New Agrarian Voices

Kate Clyatt, APPRENTICE, Mannix Brothers Ranch, MT

My Land Ethic

While there are many things that come to mind when I ponder my land ethic, the one that seems to serve as my foundation is the understanding that everything is interconnected. When it comes to land management, one way in which this manifests is the idea that humans are an integral component of the ecosystem, rather than apart from it. When you take this approach, humans are no longer at odds with our resources, but rather, are in partnership with the water, soil, grass, trees, microbes, animals, etc. Examples of this mutually beneficial relationship could include the logger restoring a forest to its historical stand densities and increasing forest resiliency while providing materials to serve as the infrastructure for human civilization. Another example is the management of wildlife populations through hunting quotas. Managed properly, hunting pressure can keep prey populations from overreaching an ecosystem’s carrying capacity. When you see yourself in partnership with the land, you seek to benefit it’s health along with your own.

I would argue that one of the most, if not the most, important tool in land management is the understanding and application of disturbance within ecosystems. Every ecosystem is shaped by a set of unique disturbance regimes. Fire, flooding, wind, and grazing are some forms of disturbance, but there are certainly many others. We, as land stewards, have learned the hard way how fast and far ecosystems can deteriorate without an intact disturbance regime. The same exact tool, whether it is a herd of grazers, a feller buncher, or a series of irrigation gates, can be used with drastically different results, depending on the how closely their use mimics natural disturbance. Understanding these disturbance regimes is a task within itself; applying them can be even more challenging. As with most healthy relationships, there needs to be a give and take. A rancher may choose to fence off most of the creek, leaving only one spot for cattle to drink, as to concentrate the damage in one area while restoring bank stability and channel narrowness to the rest of the stream. A logger might take a straight tree and leave a defect tree instead, understanding that both serve the same ecological function in a given context.

Finally, I think a huge part of any sustainable land ethic has to include people and our overly complicated societal dynamics. Ultimately, what type of management gets done on the land comes down to human decisions, whether it’s through policy, law suites, education, or my personal favorite: grassroots community efforts and collaboration. There are many different roles that people can play within sustainable land management of private lands – whether it’s scientists researching responses of climate change, lobbyists translating science into policy, NGOs raising funds for application of best practices, or the wide variety of landowners and public interests. As someone who has been in various roles within land management – from university and federal research to consulting to working with my boots on the ground as a ranch laborer, I hope to someday serve as a bridge between some of the divides that can occur when proper communication is lacking. I think the first step to doing this is to establish within a community. My chosen home is western Montana, and I feel blessed to have 5 years of community building under my belt here. I hope to continue to grow roots in this place, and become a piece of a larger web of collaboration of ideas and outreach. I firmly believe that ranching is the heart and soul of Montana. As the state’s (and world’s) populations continues to expand and modernize, I think it’s imperative not only to maintain working landscapes, but to make sure people understand how valuable these ranches are to society and to the health of our ecosystems.

There are a million other thoughts I have about my land ethic – these are only a few. It’s something I think about a lot, and continue to develop as I experience different perspectives and conflicts. I do not come from an agricultural background – I come from a conservation and environmentalist background. Through my own study and from listening to those who know more than I, I have come to firmly believe that properly stewarded working landscapes are the answer to maintaining the health of land, people, and all the other critters that inhabit this planet.

Final Reflection

As I look at the prompt, it’s hard to constrain my words to a “formal report.” This year has been such a deeply personal experience, it’s difficult to untangle the “work” from the “life”. It’s also hard to put this intangible string of moments and feelings into organized thoughts . But I tried.   Here are a few reflections on this year, captioned with some relevant lyrics from Corb Lund’s song “Cows Around”, because why not.

 

What else could make a bishop swear like a sailor might

What else could cause such tension between a man and his wife

What else could ever bring all these enhancements to your life

May you always have cows around

 

It’s difficult to quantify everything I have gained and learned from this year’s apprenticeship. When it comes to gains, a string of words come to mind: a community, a life partner, a family, self-confidence, a  few dozen drink tokens from the Copper Queen, a cowdog, a sense of place, a new life path, the list goes on. Things I have learned are both more and less tangible: how to operate a tractor, a bailor, a dirt bike, a skid steer, a post pounder; how to communicate with unapologetic honesty and humility; how to pull a calf and sew up a prolapse; how to take people as they come; how to use an ultrasound for preg-testing; how to work through the hard stuff with humor.

 

What else is gonna make your pony puff and wheeze

Or make you calve ’em out at below forty degrees

What else is gonna eat you right completely out of feed

May you always have cows around

 

Many of the hard skills I learned this year built off of my previous experience with horsemanship or stock handling, while others were brand new: haying, equipment operation, irrigating, construction, navigating dirt bikes through sagebrush, ultrasounding, etc. Synonymously, while some areas of personal growth were new and unfamiliar, such as navigating a family business and tight knit community,  many areas of growth built from the foundation I’ve established within the last few years. Shortly before my first apprenticeship I realized I had only been pursuing things I was already good at. I was so afraid of being bad at something, I had limited myself only to things I already knew. Letting go of that fear has been the best lesson of the last decade, and I have come to relish being a beginner. Part of being a good beginner has been to abolish my pride and own up to what I may or may not know. These days, this is second nature, but only a few years ago, I struggled deeply with these insecurities. My first ranching apprenticeship was in part an answer to this revelation, as I knew ranching would expose me a whole boatload of things I didn’t know. This has been true and true again, and the constant exposure to new things has added immeasurable value and meaning to my life.

 

Everything is better with some cows around

Living in town sometimes brings me down

Let me bestow this western blessing and leave you saddle bound

May you always have cows around

 

This entire year has been a highlight. Sure, there have been hard days, but those have been outshone tenfold by the richness of this whole experience. Helmville is the best community I’ve ever been lucky enough to be embraced by. The heart and soul of this town beats with an energy that it greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a one bar town, but it’s a far cry from dead out here. In many ways, I feel like my whole world has narrowed its focus to this valley, and I can’t wait to find ways to serve this place and the people in it.

 

What else you gonna spend that extra money on

What else is gonna get you up hours before dawn

What else is gonna keep you toiling on and on and on

May you always have cows around

 

The challenges I’ve experienced this year are a reflection of the hardships many producers face. There is never enough time, never enough money, the work goes on and on and on. For me, this year illuminated the value of time. I realized that I want more of it for my own creative ventures, but I’m not quite how to incorporate that into a life of ranching. I question whether there is a viable and sustainable future for me in this work. On some days I can’t imagine doing anything else, on others, I struggle to justify working this hard for so little. On some days my life feels overflowing with abundance, on others, I feel like I’ll never get ahead. I think a life in agriculture is filled with these concerns. This lifestyle is hard to shake – hard to leave behind, but at the same time, ranchers and farmers have been completely left behind. Everyone from the cattle buyers to the consumer is underpaying the producer, and that can be a hard truth to live under.

 

You mighta had to let em dig for oil and gas

You mighta had to turn the place into an exotic game ranch

You mighta had to do all kinds of things to raise the cash

So you’d always have cows around

 

In many ways, this year I moved from a career-path to a life-path. My paradigm shifted, and I feel a mix of excitement and anxiety at the unknowns of this new approach. Not a clue what it leads to, but just like that Corb Lund song, with any luck, I’ll always have cows around.

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