New Agrarian VoicesLearn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.
Lauren Lees, 2ND YEAR APPRENTICE, Western States Ranches, Colorado
First Reflection- 2nd year
What is my land ethic? A few years ago, this was a completely novel and uncontemplated concept. I grew fruits and vegetables, I used compost and didn’t spray chemicals. But whole system thinking? Foundational prioritization of ecological health? These ideas were still outside my framework of thinking. Coming across the principles of regenerative agriculture, and regenerative ranching in particular started to bring these new ways of thinking to life for me.
I’ve spent a few years now (hardly a drop in the bucket) excitedly geeking out over new facts and figures, new management strategies, test cases, research papers and keynotes speakers. I have barely gotten started, but already feel the dilemmas of any ambitious, information hungry land steward- the challenge of balancing time to ingest information and time to practice, of balancing ideals with practicality, and balancing the focus of the micro and the macro. But what is my land ethic? Stewardship. That in itself was a transition, a shift from a focus on making a living by ‘responsibly’ or ‘sustainably’ taking from the land, to a focus on playing a role in promoting healthy, thriving ecosystems that can in turn produce food. However, of course, here we find ourselves mired in detail. For the word ‘producer’ exists in both of those sentences. However for me, there became a difference in focus. The fundamental principles of holistic management or regenerative practices boil down to taking care of the land so that it can in turn take care of you. An idea far more practiced by previous occupants of this land than our current civilization has had time and patience for. This concept also entails a higher degree of humility about human’s role within our environment, and of letting go of ideas of control. But how to learn how to be a effective land steward? Well that it why I am here, participating in a second year of apprenticeship within regenerative ranching. The dynamism of this field is immense- on any given day one may need to be competent in water management, nutrient management, mechanics, animal husbandry, local politics, ecology, predator conflict, neighbor conflict, low stress livestock handling, equipment handling, time management (!), the national economy and the local cattle market. And so much more. And as fun as learning as all this micro processes can be (or sometimes less so), I know I must remind myself to zoom out, to see the macro. Learning to flood irrigate has been an apt analogy. Spending two hours channeling water to an acre of hard to get pasture, when I have 400 other acres to get to that day, means I have most likely lost sight of the bigger picture, and am less effective. So this year, balancing my focus, will be one of my focuses. Ideals brought us here, but without practicality, ideals are of little use. To make the large scale changes our earth requires, we need both. And at the root, that is what brought me here.
I came to learn. Through experience, yes, but also through words. Through discussion, through shared observation. Though books, and lectures. I came to this apprenticeship with the explicit desire to learn, but with the unacknowledged, and implicit need to remove myself from my status quo and commit to full time learning. Much like enrolling in a higher education program, the information is already out there, and we don’t necessarily need to pay tuition and undergo the rigamarole of college to learn a desired subject. However there is certainly something to the public commitment we make upon entering such a program, that we are submitting ourselves to the time frame, prescribed paces and expected outcomes of our superiors, and that we are going to see this through- and this holds us accountable. And so, as hard as the isolation and change of pace was, I simultaneously knew I had to celebrate it for forcing me to spend my time focused on the subjects at hand.
And with this immersion and focus I dove in. Having spent my adult life so far working in organic agriculture, I was no stranger to ecologically friendly farming practices. Yet this concept of ‘land stewardship’ was still one that was vague to me. Taking good care of the land… yes. So far this had meant not spraying chemicals, utilizing compost, incorporating diversity and crop rotations. However what did that mean exactly in terms of working landscapes? In regards to what has already been done to the land and what we must undo? Where do we intervene and where to we get out of nature’s way? Of course the nuances necessarily involved in answers to these questions are many, but general principles started to emerge over time. I had come to the ranch eager for information, questions springing from me like coils out of a worn down mattress, my threadbare façade of restraint hardly containing pent up questions. My mentors fielded an ongoing barrage of questions, and relentlessly poor metaphors. Every new piece of information opened new paths of inquiry and learning. The endorphins raging around my mind with the access to so much intellectual growth harkened to the years of college, but unlike my university experience, which was all theory, this all pertained to the land right in front of me! The soil under my feet and the plants waving in the wind.
However with time, this new wealth of knowledge being presented to me began to prompt a less welcome state of emotion… overwhelmed. The processes to learn and the facts to memorize and the variations to consider and the skills to master and the fluctuations to understand and the… fence to fix. I wanted to learn it all and learn it all now! Being in my early thirties and entering a new field with such a dynamic and wide ranging spread of applicable knowledge provided a seemingly never ending torrent of information to absorb – when I was starting late and behind the curve. I wanted the mastery of an old ranch hand and the expertise of a seasoned land steward. We have global crises to address! How can I absorb faster? If I play podcasts while I’m sleeping will knowledge seep into my brain for recall later? As may be evident by now, patience is not a skill I’d bothered to acquire much of. But that was about to change.
When I had arrived at the ranch, it had been at the cusp of the busiest time of year in their season. After a winter’s worth of precipitation and mild sunshine, plants were primed to explode with growth as the days were growing longer and the sun stronger. Calves that had been born in the fall were getting ready to be weaned. We started spending long days bringing them in from the rangeland that surrounds the heart of the ranch, driving roads that at times were mere tunnels through the chaparral brush, and made one feel that if the side by side broke down surely an ogre would be stepping out from under a boulder to nosh on any unlucky occupants. Then came the corral days, where the intensity hung in the air like curtains of billowy chiffon. (*For as any good cowhand knows, there is certainly no textile nearly so intense as chiffon.) Sorting, squeezing, tagging, sorting, squeezing, hustling, squeezing, hustling. Whips cracking in the air (purely as visual aids!). Sweat pouring off faces, backs, dust puffing, wisping, blowing. Calves bawling, fences breeched. And then… just like that, it was over. Mother cows and finishers were shipped to leases up north in irrigated country, calves were sold off in response to the coming drought. We had many handfuls of animals left who qualified as an in-between misfit crowd that we continued to move around the property, but all in all, things got quiet.
For my mentors, who usually have no break from the day in and day out of ranch life, this trial year of having most animals out on leases was a welcome reprieve. For me, it was borderline torture. Coming from the farming world, where physical labor held a direct line to productivity and worthiness, and where I might have three or four jobs come late summer and fall just to make full use of every hour of every day, ‘quiet’ time in the summer seemed obscene. This is what winter is for! But this is what I had signed up for. I had committed myself to this position, with the slightly subliminal understanding that if given any option, I would find work to keep myself busy. Busy, but not learning. For despite my deep, passionate love of learning, I, like many other agriculturalists, find it very hard to justify sitting down and reading, watching webinars, digesting information.. when there is work to be done! But here I had no option. I had to be here, to be present, available. And so, with many deep breaths and likely some teeth grinding, I began to pour myself into the sources. The literature, the webinars, the online courses, the email discourse, the podcasts. I took huge gulps from the firehoses of knowledge. I sometimes forgot to breathe. But as I drank, pictures began to form.
My initial forays into regenerative methodologies, combined with my preexisting ideologies of holistic farm management, had painted an image for me of what all this talk of regenerative, holistic land stewardship might entail. But it was a picture painted in very broad strokes. Like the kind of strokes you use to paint a house. An outline had been formed, but within remain much uncolored space. As I spent my time seeking out, and attempting to soak up the information to become an adept steward of the land, Jackson Pollack sprays of color were thrown across the image- disorganized, but exciting. As the months flowed by, the splotches began to move. They melted into each other. They migrated into shapes- the dark shimmer of a stream, the shadow of a mountain, a cluster of trees in an arroyo. The information that I had been collecting was starting to coalesce into the beginnings of understanding. Relationships were being formed. The economics of traditional ranch operations. Declining soil productivity and desertification. Water infiltration versus run off. The lack of groundwater recharge. Fungal versus bacterial dominance. Beavers. Weeds, nature’s first responders. Sage grouse. Tannins, alkaloids, tertiary compounds. Mineral cycling. Perennial bunch grasses. Everything inextricably linked. And at the center of my universe – cows. Or rather, hooved livestock. The power that such a seemingly simple creature is capable of amazes me.
Growing up surrounded by hillsides that cattle had transformed from grassland to dead lawn, I couldn’t have imagined the reconciliation they were begging for. Who traps children in a candy store for a week, then blames them for the ensuing mess, stomach aches, and potential early on-set diabetes? In a world that has been woven in a fine, delicate gossamer of intricacy, we paraded in with limbs flailing, whirring around as we unwittingly destroyed balance and structure wherever we stepped. But we have choices. We can stop flailing. We can try to help still our neighbors who are still noodling away. We can bring back the spiders to reweave nature’s webs. Nature will heal herself, she need not us mortal souls. However, time is short, and if we want to help speed the repair, so that we may continue to revel in her beauty, we must play a role. And that role requires humility, diligence and respect. And livestock. We need the livestock. Cows and sheep are the best tools we have to help restore the vibrant ecosystems that sustain this earth, and the nuanced cycles that carry them. We can use them to mimic the patterns and effects that modern society prevents wild animals from doing. And this isn’t just on your neighborhood farm or ranch. This is all over the world. There are vast swaths of land that are crying out for animals to show up responsibly. It seems the newest science coming out keeps reinforcing how extremely intelligent and well designed our natural world is.. and how little we really know. As more delicate brush strokes continue to fill in my painting over the coming years, I know my eyes will still widen and my lips will still smile as I continue to fervently learn. But the borders will expand. (Luxuries of a metaphorical canvas). Empty space will remain. For it is in acknowledging the unknown that we leave space for humility and creativity. I came to this apprenticeship with an underwhelming and undersized canvas, and not enough paint. Quivira brought me to the art shop and set me loose. I will forever be humbled and grateful.
REFLECTIONS AFTER THE FIRST MONTH
I always knew I didn’t want a ‘real job’. I cannot remember a time when work and life were separable. Which may say more about my memory than anything. However, I can remember sitting at my adolescent self’s desk, defiantly proclaiming to my parents that there is just SO MUCH SUFFERING IN THE WORLD and it was my responsibility, nay, duty!, to do something about it. And they supported me. They supported me through college, through my fierce naïveté and passion, through many conversations ‘informing’ them as to the many injustices of the world. I saw a future for myself working with disenfranchised peoples in ‘underdeveloped’ countries, devoting my life to helping others in crisis situations in foreign places. And the more I learned, the more I.. began to question. I began to question the narratives about why the world was the way it was, the motives of the rule makers, the paradigms of power, the efficacy of the solutions. By the time I had neared graduation, the idea of being yet another privileged citizen of a first world country full of its own economic and societal inequalities, traveling to an impoverished nation in a crisis most likely created by said first world, to preach the gospel of development, felt highly.. hypocritical. Plus, I had come to believe that grassroots, ground-up efforts were huge is creating real societal change. So I put my binoculars down, and looked at what was right in front of my face.
It was the food system that really caught my attention. The subsidies, the CAFOs, the food desserts, the diet induced health epidemics. I had long held a love for being outside, and experiencing wild places, and as I pivoted towards issues within my own society, I vacillated between environmental stewardship- keeping the wild wild, and agriculture- which I saw as human manipulated nature. For I felt that communities needed access to numerous small farms growing real, nutritious foods to move the needle. However, I first decided to try the wild wild, and I took several internships at National Parks, the Grand Tetons in Wyoming and Olympic National Park in Washington. And I had truly beautiful, character developing times in those places. But the bureaucracy and desk oriented nature of the work? Not for me. So I came back to California and took a job at a budding heirloom seed company, and have been completely unable to shake farming since. There is a lot I could say about the satisfaction of the work, of being outside daily and in touch with the environment, and using my hands and my body, of watching things grow, of nurturing ‘real’ food. Over a decade later, and I still often think of the words of a farmer looking out at a vibrantly healthy field, row after row exploding with color and sheen, “If looking out at this field gives you a deep feeling of fulfillment and happiness, you know you’re in the right profession”. At the time I wasn’t sure if I was, but I can not quantify the amount of time that I have spent watching animals graze and frolic, and plants grow, and felt that deep sense of contentment and gratification. Farming has a romantic reputation for good reason, and I have spent a lot of days feeling very lucky to do what I do. But it can also be grueling, never ending, beating your body and sanity to a pulp, and leaving it’s dirty dishes in the sink and the front door open when it’s done. But I wholeheartedly love what I do, and that’s the bottom line through all the bad days and times of doubt. Because there’s got to be something down there right? I didn’t want a ‘real’ job, and I didn’t get one. I’ve found a lifestyle I’m passionate about that makes me a living. That’s certainly not the same for everyone in agriculture, and I respect that. However I’m looking at a way to marry the wild wild nature and our human created agriculture, in the way of regenerative practices, and specifically regenerative grazing practices. This apprenticeship, a decade later, feels like walking through a door I hadn’t known existed. The many different paths and trails I’ve taken within agriculture have all seemed to coalesce to bring me here. Healing the land and raising nourishing foods? I’m here to learn.
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