New Agrarian Voices

MORGAN ATKINSON, 2ND YEAR APPRENTICE, San Juan Ranch, CO

My Land Ethic

When I first sat down and tried to define what I consider to be my land ethic, I was unable to come up with something concrete. Each thought I had generated more questions and it became something too big to grab a hold of. What exactly is a land ethic? When did it begin developing? Have I always had some version of it? What are the influences in my life that shape it, both past and present?

The writer Anne Lamont talks about viewing the topic you want to write about as a polaroid picture. What the lens is aimed towards and, once taken, what comes into focus around the initial subject? When I point this lens towards my “land ethic” today, I choose the cow. When it comes to my current relationship with the land, she is standing in the foreground. I am not sure I intentionally put her there, but I take a mental picture of this cow because I know my day to day revolves around her and her needs. My actions are tied to her well-being.

I will wake up before the sun to see if she has had her calf or if she needs help. I will pound post holes in the frozen ground in order to move electric fence so she can get the feed to help her make it through the winter and into calving season in her best condition. I will spend my summer changing electric fence daily so she can get the best nutrition and the land can stay healthy for her and her new calf the following year.

In these past two years, her well-being became my own long before I realized it. Every new skill I learned was ultimately to her benefit. When I acknowledge the central role she plays in my life now, the land around her begins to come into sharper focus. Her well-being is the land’s well-being. They are entwined in their own relationship that I am allowed to be a part of. Having my own relationship with the land is something that has always been important to me. Now that I’ve chosen her as my guide, she changes that relationship for me.

So, what is my land ethic? Struggling to even define what a land ethic is, I turned to Aldo Leopold’s thoughts on what constitutes a land ethic. He emphasizes the necessity of community within ethics—without community there wouldn’t be any relationships to be impacted and an ethic would hold no value. Now when I think about my own land ethic, I am able to see all that this cow has illuminated for me. She has shown me community by showing me the way she is embedded in both the biological and the rural community. She has shown me what has always been important to me. Before I was involved in agriculture, I was taught to respect the open and beautiful landscapes of the West, and now she has given me a way to give back to it.

This cow’s relationship to community is currently shaping my land ethic, my ranching ethic. This is what I want my relationship with the land to be- one that involves animal, plant, and human and the way they are all interconnected. This is why I want to practice regenerative agriculture. I believe these ideas will not only shape my future in agriculture, but they will give me one. I can’t give a concise definition to what I believe my land ethic to be. It is not finished. I am not sure if it is something that can ever be finished, but I will continue to follow this cow.

Final Reflection

It’s been a month since I sat with George and Julie in their living room reflecting on the end of my two year apprenticeship at the San Juan Ranch. We talked about where I began and what I was leaving with. A few days later, I drove back to Idaho. Today I am still thinking about that conversation and the past two years. 

I went into my second year apprenticeship excited to solidify skills that I had been exposed to in the first eight months and widen my ranching education from day to day tasks and into the bigger picture. I wanted to have the skills and the confidence to work independently. By understanding the larger goals of the operation, I wanted to be able to make quick decisions that would ultimately benefit and keep things going in the right direction. Independent decision making is something I generally avoid, but I’ve learned in the past two years that the opportunities I have to work on my own and carry that accountability have been my most rewarding. I will be starting a new job here in Idaho this winter, and because of my second year at the San Juan Ranch and the support and focus on these goals, I feel ready—still nervous but ready! 

Earlier this fall, my brother and his wife came to spend a few days on the ranch. They’ve both heard talk about all that I have learned and come to love about the ranch and the San Luis Valley. The night they arrived, we walked out onto the farm circle where we were grazing our finish animals. We walked out slowly and caught the steers’ attention. Standing in the middle of the field, the steers began to surround us. My brother couldn’t believe the animals were intentionally walking toward us and that they held such curiosity. We sat out in the field in silence and it felt powerful to be able share something so concrete as to why I’ve chosen ranching as a career. The next morning we had to do some corral work and put ear tags in the steers. My brother and I stayed back while his wife and Hana ran the chute. We sorted animals out and brought them up the alley. I was explaining low stress animal handling to him and was ultimately showing myself what I knew. For the first time, I was able to tell my older brother what to do and demonstrate what I’ve actually been doing these past two years. Not only was he able to concretely see that, but so I was I. 

I think sometimes it is hard to see your own progress over time and feel like you can walk away with a concrete list of everything you have developed. We have a skills checklist that we try to revisit every few months for this exact reason. As I am sitting here with my own skills checklist sitting in front of me, it is still somewhat difficult to process, but I can see each incremental improvement and feel confident in listing some of the skills as something I can bring to an operation. After being away from the daily grind for a month, I have been able to some clarity of all I am leaving this apprenticeship with and all that I have gained from both San Juan Ranch and the New Agrarian Program. What I think has really become difficult to process is what a large impact this place and this program has had on me. I moved away from Idaho three years ago, and because of the apprenticeship, I have come back with an entirely different lens. 

My long term vision was and still is managing a ranch in a way that benefits both community and landscape. This vision hasn’t changed much, but I feel like my idea of community has shifted. Last year, I thought of this statement as my immediate community and my immediate landscape. I have always intended to return to Idaho and bring back what I have learned in Colorado. I’ve since realized that over the past two years my community has grown and developed through my apprenticeship and the San Juan Ranch and does not necessarily reside in any one place. Now that I have physically left, I am feeling the strength of that community. That community has become and will continue to be a part of my long term vision. It has given me a place to grow from. 

I didn’t grow up ranching in Idaho and I am choosing to move back to the valley I grew up in. I am choosing to come back to a familiar place in an unfamiliar capacity. I feel like my apprenticeship has given me the capacity to do so. I am continually brought back to the larger question: why ranching? Looking at my skills checklist, I find myself asking: why commit? What I love about ranching is the requirement to show up. It is the way a ranching lifestyle can develop your confidence and your decision making ability. Like I mentioned earlier, I have a tendency to avoid the difficult decisions, but often in ranching, that is not an option. You are allowed to be a part of a relationship between the animals and the land, and you are required to show up and make that decision. This is the reason I ultimately decided to apply for the apprenticeship and then why I chose to stay on for another year. By staying in a place that has become familiar, I was able to solidify skills without the added difficulty of going through a transition. Now, with a transition ahead of me, I feel like I can move it into the learning curve of a specific operation with a strong foundation of skills. Above all, the apprenticeship has given me the confidence to even have a long term vision in a career in ranching. 

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