New Agrarian VoicesLearn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.
Leah Pinkner, APPRENTICE, Moe Ranch, MT
First Reflection – 2nd Year
It’s hard to think about land without thinking about land ownership, who has access to land, and why. The idea of owning land doesn’t really sit right with me, but I don’t currently know of another way to have land security in a country built on the displacement, oppression, and enslavement of land’s peoples (to put it nicely). I don’t know what the equitable answer is, but I know that the New Agrarian Program is doing a service in helping those who may not have access to tend or own land the ability to get their foot in the door.
The phrase “regenerative agriculture” is abused. When I hear people speak about regenerative agriculture I hear, “soil health”, “beyond organic”, “animal integration”, “cover crops”, yada yada, the list goes on. There’s an immense imbalance of talking about these things and actually practicing these things; practicing them consistently, not just when it’s convenient; doing only a single regenerative practice, or doing it only once. These practices aren’t just things you do to get brownie points or grant money. You do them because you need to. Because life relies on it. The phrase “regenerative agriculture” sometimes feels hollow.The meaning of regenerative agriculture is more than that.
I still feel that the common understanding of regenerative agriculture is lacking a key element, however. I think that element is one of love, compassion, tenderness, and healing. Healing our relationship with land, with Earth. Caring for land that is sick like you would a small child or an
elder. Regenerating our relationship with; how we think, feel, and connect with land; and in turn every life relying on this mutually beneficial, compassionate interaction. This extends to our communities. My definition of regenerative agriculture is lifting up those that support us in our endeavors, bringing life and abundance back to our dying communities, giving back when we can, supporting our fellow ranchers and farmers, small businesses, local businesses, striving to and providing opportunities for those who don’t come by them easily, and having compassion for one another.
Part of regenerative agriculture should be caring for oneself and one another. We agrarians are the ones who do the work, and we rely on each other and those who are not agrarians themselves. Regenerative agriculture only exists if we acknowledge that it cannot exist without the people and industries that support it. What I’m getting at is that we need to heal our relationship with those outside of our communities, along with those inside our communities, because the work we do is for everyone. If we work so hard and care so much about how we fill a need for society and Earth, it would make sense that we care deeply about those who make up society. Caring for land is caring for people and all life.
I’m not sure what land ethic is, but I have a vision for how I want my relationship with land and Earth to be. I don’t want to push the land like some, including myself, push themselves. I don’t want to ask more of land than I ask of myself. And not in a toxic way either, like “I’m willing to give my blood, sweat, and tears for this, so Earth should too,” kind of way. I think that’s how we got here.
Agrarians are some of the hardest working people. However, the idea that one is willing to break themselves for their work isn’t an excuse for ignoring the needs of land and others because they are willing to ignore their own needs. This culture of endless work is changing and has to change. Self care is in, breaking ourselves and our bank is out. Nuff said.
My dream is to have a tender and loving relationship with land. If we do right for land, land will provide for us. I’m not sure the English language has words for what I’m trying to describe. My favorite artist, Molly Costello, created an artwork that really resonates with me (practically all of their work does.) In their work, they use imagery insisting transformative interconnectedness amongst land and all life land brings forth. They portray the words “the land loves us back” in one specific piece. Their artwork can better describe this prosperous relationship that I seek more than any words can.
My relationship with land is clearly complicated. Humankind’s relationship with land is complicated. I got into regenerative agriculture because I want to do right for Earth. I want to get to a place (physically, emotionally, financially) where I feel with 100% of my being that every day I am striving for and using best practices for the benefit of life and of Earth, and helping other do the same. Maybe that’s naive. I’m not sure if I can get there. I’m not going to stop trying.
I have lived at the Moe Ranch for exactly 8 months, today. (Read: yes, I procrastinated and wrote this the day before it’s due.)
The months have gone by quickly. There were times, however, where it seemed to move slowly. These are the times that I was learning something new. Maybe this is the key to a long life, continual learning? After a few months, I realized that each month came with a new learning objective.
In March, I learned the very basics of the lifecycle of a cow on the Ranch, and suddenly, was assisting a calf into the world. I learned a great respect for cows in observing them give birth. They are truly badass, sensitive, and intelligent beings. I remember feeling very reluctant to ever give birth after seeing so many calves be born, and was fascinated at how the movies did such a good job at showing what an alien being born must be like. Birth is really… gooey. I was not expecting that! I learned just how dangerous it is to live this agrarian life, and how quickly things can change. My first major lesson was to do everything consciously (still working on this, my brain is trained in the art of distraction). I also learned how to drive a tractor, how a no-till drill works, and helped to seed 100 acres of ultimately a crop failure due to drought. We will try again in the spring! I also learned how to operate the Bobcat.
In April, we continued calving the first-calf heifers. I also started seedlings for our soon to be garden. I enjoyed caring for the seedlings daily and watching them grow. I learned that living this way: working outside in the elements, intimately connected to my food supply, providing one on one care–whether it be with an animal or plant–brought me great joy. I knew then, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. Until I retire, that is. Having a donut shop, and joining a bowling league are my retirement aspirations. That may sound silly, but I am continuing to learn the hard way that life is not to be taken for granted. In April, I lost my brother, Brendan. Brendan was a Volkswagen mechanic who absolutely loved what he did. For kindergarten Halloween he dressed up as a homemade Herbie the Love Bug (I am writing this on Halloween). Brendan brought so much joy to work with him every day. He changed his workplace and made it fun for all of his friends and coworkers to come to work. I think one of the best ways I can honor him is by living as genuinely as he did, by doing this job that I love with 100% of my being. I passionately feel that choosing a livelihood that makes you happy is the best choice you can make for yourself, your health, and can inspire others to take joy in their daily lives too. Losing Brendan made me realize that I can do the things I perceive to be hard. I have learned that both life and death never go the way you expect them to, and to be okay with that.
In May, we started irrigating. I learned how to flood irrigate, mostly. I also learned how to run a center pivot irrigation system. I spent much time appreciating water, and its sole reason for life on this Earth. I watched the yellow headed blackbirds gather in the fields I brought water to. I watched bubbles come up from the ground happily allowing space for water in the soil. I listened to the bees buzzing, dancing, and bathing in the water soaking into the ground. I noticed how sweet smelling a particular field seeded in a multi species cover crop mix smelt.
In June we turned in the bulls and we hayed. I learned the process of haying; how to drive the swather and operate the rake; and how to service the baler, swather, and tractors. We began to brand all of the calves. I also learned some new plant identification, and some basic lessons on running a business every ranch should know. We planted our seedlings outside, finally, and learned that June first is a hard deadline. We actually planted our seedlings two days before the morning of June first, and lost nearly a third of the garden to frost. Luckily, we made some friends who have a small vegetable farm nearby. They kindly gave us some new plants to transplant in their place. In June I met my fellow Northern apprentices and made friends for the first time in a long time. NAP has given me a community of some of the best people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.
In July, we hurriedly hauled and stacked all of the hay in the hay yard so we could continue to irrigate. Irrigation was critical this year, and we are lucky to have the infrastructure and water rights to be able to grow enough hay (just barely enough!) after some destocking to feed the cows over the winter, as long as the winter isn’t too hard. We also started our journey of raising broiler chickens. I learned how to back up a trailer!
The water ran out in August. The chicks went out on pasture, and did not learn to go into the coop on their own at night. I did some intensive grazing on my own this month, and had a fun back and forth with the pairs each morning. I remember seeing their progress in learning the routine, and also watching their taste for “freshies” grow. We spent time chasing bulls out of the brush and hauling them back home. I got to see my friends and fellow apprentices again and learn some Low Stress Livestock Handling. We all had a fun time trying it out and watching each other learn. After the LSLH clinic we went to the little town of Ovando for their block party and had a blast. We had too many beers and ate some incredible food from a food truck there, and I was reminded of my long lost dream of a food truck. I’m already living my dreams that I used to think were far fetched, so why can’t I also fulfill my dream of having a food truck? Anything feels possible now. I think this is also the magic of choosing a livelihood you love, everything else seems attainable if you work for it.
In September we weaned the heifer calves. We learned very late in the game that the chickens do know how to go into their coop at night, and we didn’t need to catch them to put them inside before it got dark. Next year we will try each week after dark to see when they learn to go in on their own and save a lot of hassle. I learned how to and canned our vegetables from the garden.
This month, October, we sold the heifer calves, weaned and sold the steer calves, preg checked all the cows, and sold the ones that didn’t get pregnant. We had friends and fellow apprentices join us for our chicken harvest that really couldn’t have gone better. I also “poured” concrete for the first time. It sounds a lot easier than it really is. It should be called shoveling concrete. It really gave me an appreciation for those who labor like that for a living. Changing careers from a lab technician to an agrarian, I thought I had a labor job. I was wrong. Ranching does require you to do more than sit at a computer, but it certainly isn’t labor like pouring concrete. I also realised this month, or maybe over some years, that I have a hard time with failure. I have admitted to myself and to some around me that I really don’t like to do things if I can’t do them just right. And that I really enjoy doing things that I can do, or fix to be, just right.
This brings me to what’s next? Well, I am going to be at the Moe Ranch for another year as a second year apprentice. Although I learned so much these past 8 months, I have much more to learn. Including how to be a better failure, and how to be okay with failure. I’m not sure how I’m going to do this, but it’s something I need to work on. I have a feeling that I’ll have plenty of opportunities over the coming year to get better at that. I also hope to learn how to better care for myself over the next year. I’m proud of myself for not mentioning it once in this essay so far, but I live in a tiny house with and work with my best friend and husband, Jesse. While working together is mostly a dream come true, we get very little time apart. I need more alone time to recharge, and I didn’t do a good job of figuring out how to do that for myself these past 8 months. Although we are a great team, I need to push myself to do better at the things I rely on Jesse for. We are both apprentices, and I should learn how to do the mechanical and building things we usually default to assigning to him. I would also like to try to implement some amount of exercise outside of the workday to feel stronger again.
On a less personal note: now that we have raised chickens, we will continue to raise chickens, hopefully both broilers and layers this spring. Next we will raise pigs! I’m very excited to learn more about other livestock. I also hope to learn about butter and cheese making over the next year. A chicken coop for the laying hens and a greenhouse to extend our season are in the plans. I’m sure my building skills will bring plenty of failure to grapple with, but I also hope to get better at building and less anxious about using power tools over the next year.
REFLECTIONS AFTER THE FIRST MONTH
Agriculture has been calling my name for many years. I wasn’t ready to hear it until about a year ago. I don’t think I became interested in agriculture, more than I realised it. Coming to agriculture, I believe, is the culmination of the skills and natural aspirations of my life. I think this begins with my childhood love for cooking, nourishing, and independence. I grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, and had few encounters with nature. I always felt a natural importance for the Earth and all the life it harbors, but was taught to be afraid of the outdoors.
I met my husband when I was 14, and we’ve been together since we were 16. He comes from a family of biologists, playing in the local creeks as a young boy, and learning about nature through reverence. He is the reason why I am no longer afraid and anxious. My natural affinity for biology became tangible through going on hikes together, picking up turtles, and riding a gentle horse named Murphy the first time he took me to the ranch. You’d think I’d be sold on agriculture by now, but that is not how this story goes.
We went to college together, took every chance we could to get away and go to the ranch, and secretly dreamt of making a life there. I studied Biology, and wanted to do something good for the planet as a career. I loved my labs, and working with my hands, so my goal was some form of conservation and plant science. I got an opportunity to do 2 weeks of undergraduate research in the field, taking data on grapevines in California for a project funded by the National Science Foundation. During my 2 weeks, we got to take field trips to a grapevine nursery, and to Fresno State Grape Day. I consider Grape Day to be the most important agricultural experience I have had. At grape day, farmers, those in industry, and scientists came together to give presentations and learn from each other. However, it was clear that these farmers needed help and wanted to learn, but the biologists there had no answers to give. I was frustrated. A career in agriculture was still not in sight.
Choosing a path in life has been a journey. After college I joined a microbiology lab to get lab experience, and there I enjoyed identifying and learning about unknown bacterium. I then joined the lab who was heading up the NSF project I went to California to help with. There, I helped to build a field site, and contribute to a project studying candidate species to be bred for perennial crops. I loved field days, and caring for the plants, but felt this progress was slow and questioned how much the producers who would one day grow these plants and the importance of the soil were taken into account. This is when I learned about the NAP and regenerative agriculture. I finally heard it, agriculture calling my name. I spent my hours working alone in the pandemic voraciously listening to books and podcasts on regenerative agriculture and preparing to apply to the NAP.
We found a perfect match. Our mentor, Shane, is an amazing teacher who is also committed to growing and learning along with us.
What I hope to gain from this apprenticeship is the capability to graduate from the program feeling confident in our abilities to maintain our own herd, tend the family land responsibly, and create diverse and thriving enterprises and ecosystems. We have been on our mentor ranch for 2 months now. I feel like I am becoming the person I am meant to be, and am in awe every day. I will forever be grateful that the NAP and Shane encouraged and supported 2 kids from the city with no real experience to have a shot.
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