New Agrarian VoicesLearn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.
Nina Jensen, APPRENTICE, XK Bar Ranch, CO
I find that reflection for me comes in small moments when I least expect, often sparked by something in my day that reminds me of a past experience, or idea, or conversation. Another season blending into the next, I am noticing that the pace of my thoughts are falling into a similar pattern. The smell of cool crisp air and leaves starting to decompose is strikingly comforting to me, reminding me that time is still passing regardless of if I am ready or not. One year ago I was soggy, cold, and very tired of lifting muddy root vegetables while pondering applying for an apprenticeship on a beautiful dry grassland with cattle. And here I am, indeed in dry crisp Colorado air, feeling like I have only scratched the surface of a similar yet very different life in agriculture. Still living with the weather and trying to understand what it means to produce a livelihood off the land while working with nature. An interesting dance to try to learn, but I’ll say the most fulfilling way to spend my days.
These past few months have taught me that there are many ways to work and many ways to shape a life. One phrase that keeps wringing in my head that I heard from two separate Quivira staff is “what story do you want to tell”. That simple reframing changed how I think about work and livelihood, and reconciling values with sustenance. I struggled in the beginning of the apprenticeship to let go of counting time and productivity as the measures of personal success. After a lot of talking to others and myself I realized that it had to start with me valuing my own time as important and that I chose to spend my time this way. Learning all hours of the day in ways that aren’t quantifiable on paper is really what sets this apprenticeship apart. Taking responsibility for getting projects done and learning about ideas I wanted to dive into was a practice that I got a lot of exercise in. I also think that is essential to a future working in resilience based agriculture. Having experience with specific skills is important, but for me it is the ability to synthesize ideas with practice, plan, and follow through that seems to set some producers apart from others. The daily pace of ranching is so different from the production background in ag that I had come from, that I really had to unlearn the way I structure a day. Lists don’t always get done even if you walk faster. I remember one specific day when Tony, my mentor, was telling me about the first cabin he built in his twenties and the path that he took to being on the land he is now, and I was struck by how much work he had done and the smile he had talking about it, like it was such joy to him. It sounded so hard, yet so inspiring and I thought what a way to live life; unafraid to take on the seemingly impossible.
We talk about ‘land’ often: living with the land, managing land, land access, productivity, land rights, land conservation. All of these topics are stimulating conversations and important, however, I notice human relationships and water often become central themes. Looking back on the past few months, what sticks out the most is the people I have met and the depth of understanding that comes from exploring a region through the lens of water. Most of our irrigation on the ranch is the old fashion way of flooding a strip of field with a tarp and dam out of a ditch along the contours of the fields. Many hours were spent walking up and down fields puzzling over the dry spots and as much as I cursed it, those were some very peaceful hours getting to know each field as their own. The ability to see the ditches flowing and the water we were using really caused me to think about where is this water coming from and where is it going, in a way that I had never thought about in depth when I have irrigated out of a sprinkler system. We would often drive up the mountains to check headgates where the creeks were diverted into ditches and then follow the ditches winding through our neighbors into the valley flats. I was amazed by the simplicity of the ditch system, yet the effort required to maintain them both physically and administratively. The vegetation was willing to swallow them up with every year of growth and to think of the effort it took to build these ditches by hand and with horse teams through rugged terrain. I often pondered why and how people chose to carve out lives where they did, and what did this landscape look like before the ditch systems. What relationship to water did native peoples have in this area and how did they live amidst this land. Tony has spent much of his adult life exploring the mountains right above this ranching valley and someone whom I enjoyed many conversations with bouncing these topics around. The questions of the past also shaped our conversations about what the future of ranching in this valley might look like. With precipitation trends changing, prairie dogs thriving, the potential of living with wolves in the future, how one maintains a business and ecological stewardship is already looking different with decisions to be made. The ditches of this valley are in the midst of a large project to transition from open ditches into closed pipes, bringing another slew of questions to not only agricultural water users but also other residents who value the streaks of lush riparian corridors through an otherwise dry landscape. These discussions of environmental ethics, energy efficiency, soil health, wildlife habitat, and human value placed on beautiful open spaces are fascinating and largely center around how working lands function within a larger context and further have real impacts to what ranching looks like. I studied geography in college, a very broad field that I often get asked how one would ever use that degree. While writing this I am realizing that the intersections of social, political, cultural, and environmental factors within a certain space is exactly what geography is taking a deep look at. Layers, over time, rooted in space. Learning from people who intimately know a land, know their neighbors, and are invested in the future is an incredible experience and unique to working among land managers. These questions are what had driven me to work in food systems in the first place and pushed me to delve into the world of perennial grazing lands. They are also the place I find hope to keep learning, striving, and connecting.
I have somehow managed to not write much about all the practical skills I learned and improved upon during this apprenticeship such as learning to sell meat, butchery, processing, tractor leaks, pvc pipe, stock-water planning, animal finishing, stockmanship, the list goes on. However I will say I do love cows now and I couldn’t have said that before. I was fairly cow neutral, always preferred horses, but some of my favorite memories are the moments of pause with Tony or by myself, taken to linger with them in the grass and watch them eat or let them mob around me and lick my jacket. I have always been an animal lover and am so fond of watching Jango, Tony’s amazing dog, immediately zoom out of the truck to go find the herd and sit with them watching so intently, hoping that we might give him some commands. The instinct of a herding dog is so strong- predatory yet respectful, and watching the communication unfold between human, cow, dog, with the intent of promoting thriving soil is pretty cool for lack of a better word. My favorite part is the endless learning that comes alongside the ever adapting practices of land stewardship. The opportunity to do this kind of work with the goal of healthy soil and water while feeding people delicious food is an incredible way to spend one’s day, definitely not easy, but hard to give up.
REFLECTIONS AFTER THE FIRST MONTH
I would tell you my interest in agriculture started when I moved to Vermont for school and was exposed to a community of thinkers that believed food production was important and inspiring, fascinating news I thought. My mother would say that my interest in land based life has been percolating through me since I was young and was concerned as to why my grandpa’s cows were always staring at me. Agriculture has been cultivating a place in my life long before I realized it. A deep love for the outdoors and adventure led me to study environmental issues and repeatedly the failures of agriculture were the given explanation for most any issue. I was completely struck as to how vital and intimate an act as growing food could be such a damaging force to soil and water. Beyond the environment, the social inequities of food and land access became a solidifying layer to my pursuit of food systems. I felt, and still do, that an incredible potential for change is to be found in a practice as essential and broad as agriculture. The stunning beauty of Vermont farms and food also helped soothe me into a radical.
A deeper answer to this question points to my roots and the people I come from. A love of land has been taught throughout my life in subtle ways by different people with their own unique flare. My father grew up on a farm in Northern Iowa where we spent many weekends climbing on hay bales, learning the craftiness of farm life, and to love a good story. My mother took us walking the prairie collecting seeds and identifying wildflowers. Days spent hunting the woods with my grandmother for Morels, muddy creek jaunts with my cousins, and cooking over fires are experiences that I had never thought much about or appreciated until my more recent years. Along with that, my grandfather’s strong spirit of conservation has seeped into all of us in one way or another.
A passion for great food, animals, and fascination with processes have rooted me here in ag where I am today. I love the endless transformation of systems, relationships, culture, landscapes, ingredients that is part of this work. So what do I want to learn in this apprenticeship…
Practically speaking I want to develop my stockmanship, plant, and soil knowledge. I want to understand how something I am observing this moment may present itself next year. I hope to gain confidence in my communication and understand the broader systems at play to be able to integrate grazers into a farming system strategically. Ultimately I want to connect with people and be part of a community actively adapting and thinking ahead for our ecology and our food.
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