New Agrarian Voices

Mitchell Robert, APPRENTICE, Ranney Ranch

First Month Reflection

There are three core values that have led me to become an apprentice at Ranney Ranch: increased access and awareness to healthy foods for all as a right, not a privileged; sustainable and holistic land and animal management, and my love for working in the outdoors and with nature.  These values are a product of the culmination of my experiences to date.

My introduction to agriculture and food systems began when I was eleven when I started spending the summers working on my uncle’s ranch in Eastern Washington, a cow calf and grain operation.  Initially my duties were to move sprinklers, build fence line, paint buildings, paint more buildings, oh and then paint some more buildings. Slowly my responsibilities evolved into working more with the cattle and operating different tractors.  As I grew up and moved to Seattle to go get my bachelors in mathematics, my summers were spent elsewhere but my time spent on the ranch sparked an interest in agriculture and an understanding of what large scale agriculture looks like. During my time in Seattle my desire to work with food never left and it inspired me to become involved in community garden spaces and to work on urban farms.  The continued exposure to different types of food systems inspired my decision to join the Peace Corps as a food security volunteer in Nepal.

When I was in Nepal I experienced first hand what it takes to be a subsistence farmer and how it changes your values.  When you rely on the land to feed you and not the grocery store, your relationship to food and land shifts. You feel far more connected to the land and the food you eat and appreciate and value where it comes from and the work it takes.  The reality in America is different then Nepal, where eighty percent of its population are subsistence farmers. Here people have become disconnected from where their food comes from but by promoting local food sources and educating people on what proper food systems look like, we can attempt to appreciate our food more like the people of Nepal.

When I returned from Nepal I wanted to continue to learn more about food production.  This led me to rural Virginia where I worked on a five acre organic vegetable farm that directly sold its produce to farmers markets in Washington D.C.  There I gained more intimate knowledge on how to grow healthy food and learned the challenges that small farmers face in order to stay financially viable.  From there I decided I wanted to come back out West to get back out in the big open spaces. Fortunately, I was accepted as an apprentice at Ranney Ranch.

Ranney Ranch is situated in historically vast grasslands with incredible diversity, but due to overgrazing and systemic drought these grasslands are being choked out by junipers and have seen a incredible decline in animal and plant diversity.  Fortunately, Nancy and Melvin are doing their part in trying to regenerate their land. With changes in grazing patterns and with attention and care, they have began the process of returning the land to what it used to be. When I went to visit the ranch I stood along a fence line with Melvin; on one side was Ranney Ranch on the other their neighbors.  It was in this moment, seeing the stark contrast in dense, resilient and diverse grassland to the dry and brittle land, that I knew I wanted to be a part of this process.

I hope in my time at Ranney Ranch I can absorb as much knowledge and wisdom from Nancy and Melvin as possible and learn to live the realities of what it takes to make ends meet while keeping proper land and animal management at the forefront.  I am inspired by my mentors and thoroughly look forward to working with them and getting to know them better over the next eight months.

Final Reflection

My time at Ranney Ranch has been a wild, gritty, challenging and beautiful roller-coaster ride.  I have experienced high highs feeling capable and confident.  Having moments of complete (or at least almost complete) clarity, using the accumulation of all my learned knowledge and skills to make judgment calls that six months ago I thought I would never be able to make.  At times though, my confidence sagged and I wanted to scream at the closest cow as the waterline that I just fixed burst again five feet away.  I was pushed to the edge mentally, physically and emotionally.  This job and lifestyle calls for flexibility and determination in all those realms.  Along with growing, pushing, and learning about myself as a human, I will also walk away with many valuable skills and information.

 

To be a rancher you have to wear many hats.  In one day you can go from operating heavy machinery to being a vet then a plumber and then a range scientist and at the end of the day a mechanic.  That is what makes this job so intimidating but rewarding at the same time.  One of the first things I learned about was water.  It only took a week to understand the importance of making sure cattle had drinking water.  You can have perfect fences and pastures with grass up to your knees but if cattle do not have water to drink it all means nothing. This is especially important in the dry arid SouthWest.  With only a handful of wells and nineteen-thousand acres of pastures being able to keep up with a herd of two hundred cows and their cattle is a challenge.  There is over probably over fifty miles of pipeline and dozens and dozens of valve boxes that adjust where the water flows.  Learning how to fix a leak in a waterline, hook up a solar pump (without getting electrocuted), replace a valve, locate all the valve boxes and knowing which valve to turn just right to get water to where you want was my first lesson and one that I continue to learn about.  It is the most important job and probably the one that I spent the most time on.  I never thought I could get such a sense of satisfaction just from seeing a storage tank full of water.

 

After water management the next most important skill is managing the land.  I have had the privilege of working on a ranch that values the land.  There are three main practices that Ranney Ranch implements to improve the health of their rangeland.  They practice rotational grazing, manage the way water flows on their land, and clear and burn brush to encourage grass growth.  Rotational grazing is probably the biggest impacter in improving soil conditions.  At its most basic it is an attempt to mimic large herding mammals’ migrational patterns.  These large herds would come through an area disturb the earth with their hoofs, fertilize the land with their urine and manure, and stimulate growth and create healthier plants by eating them down.  They wouldn’t stay in one place long due to pressure from predators so they would not overgraze and by the time they were back the following year the land was healthier then it was previously.  In rotational grazing instead of predators we have smaller pastures and horses to move them from one pasture to the next.  Ranney Ranch hires Kirk Gadzia, a range consultant, to help plan how long the herd should stay in one pasture.  To create this grazing plan we go out to all of the pastures twice a year, once in the spring to plan for the growing season and once in the fall to plan for the dormant season.  At each pasture we estimate the animal grazing days per acre, basically how days could one animal unit feed on one acre and still leave about 40-50% of forage behind.  Once we have this number we can calculate how many days the herd can stay in a pasture.  After we have repeated this process on the whole ranch we can create the grazing plan.  With almost all the skills I learned, to really understand the health of the land it takes years of being on the land noticing its changes but even after my short time here I feel I have the tools to build upon and replicate this process on my own.  Ranney Ranch has spent years increasing the amount of water that is retained on the ranch.  While I was on the ranch we started another one of their many water retention and erosion control projects.  This project focused on arroyos and specifically addressing them at the head cuts.  The idea was to slow erosion and to keep water on the land not letting it run off.  I was able to go out with engineers from NRCS and help map out where we were going to build rock structures that would do just this.  The structures were based on the designs of Bill Zeedyk.  They are rock structures that are non-invasive and slow and alter the flow of water.  He has many designs but we focused on and built three types.  Media Lunas; which are quarter mooned shaped that are built above a head cut.  Rock Laydowns; these are put in place at the head cuts after they have been graded.  One-rock Damns; these are placed below the head cuts in order to slow water down and restore the arroyo bottoms.  The three work in tandem to keep water on the land.  I was able to help design and build all of these structures (this meant countless hours of gathering rocks throughout the ranch but also the chance to create giant rock puzzles out of them).  The final tool the ranch used to improve the land was clearing brush.  I was never directly involved in this process but I saw first hand the benefits.  The ranch is situated in a pocket of mesa canyon country that over time due to the lack of natural wildfires being able to burn and overgrazing is being choked out by juniper trees.  These trees, even just the small ones, can soak up 80 gallons of water a day thus taking that water away from the grasses.  The ranch has cleared thousands of acres opening the land back up and allowing grasses to thrive.

 

Though it seems counter intuitive managing the cattle is probably the least important aspect of ranching.  After you take care of the land and provide adequate water there is really only a little cattle work to be done.  But when you need to do it has to do be done well.  Handling cattle in a low-stress and safe environment is key.  Having proper corals and keeping calm knowing how to move around are things you learn by doing and seeing.  To get them to the corals you have to know how to ride.  This is when I got to be a “real” cowboy.  Before coming to the ranch I had ridden a horse maybe a half dozen times but after six months I feel comfortable doing ground work, saddling, and working cattle.  It is a joy to see this ranch on horseback.  I drove all over it in a truck everyday but there is something different about the way you see it on top of a horse.  Some of my favorite moments on the ranch were on horseback.  Riding up mesas onto beautiful meadows then down into a little canyon where you feel completely alone and at peace.  Though I would be lying if I said after eight hours on a long cattle drive I didn’t want to get off and sit on something other than a saddle.

 

I feel privileged to have been able to see and work in this beautiful part of our country.  I will hold onto the memories I made here and think back on them fondly.  I will also take the skills and knowledge I gained, and the mental toughness I acquired with me to my next venture whatever that may be.   

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