New Agrarian VoicesLearn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.
Nina Jenson, APPRENTICE, XK Bar Ranch, CO
A consistent undertone in my life that I have felt for a while, but has surfaced while working in agriculture, is a feeling of being stretched between different circles of thought, people, and micro-cultures. I know this is not unique to me, however it has been a consistent source of confusion and tension, yet also a source of relief and creativity. I have been trying to reframe it to myself as a strength and an opportunity; to have the ability to connect and communicate across groups and places. The past two years as an apprentice on grazing operations at two opposite ends of the ranching spectrum didn’t answer the question of where do I fit in, instead it added a few more worlds of exposure that I feel halfway plugged into. It has been an experience characterized by patience, loneliness, beauty, and a realization that there isn’t, and doesn’t have to be an answer to where and how I fit within the agricultural world.
The pressure to fit in is partially from myself, and partially from the broader community where being a rancher becomes a lifestyle and sense of identity. Taking care of animals is a labor of unpredictability, responsibility, endless time, and joy that requires an integration into one’s life unlike many other professions. It is the aspect of this job that I come back for. It is also the caretaking that is the source of tension within parts of myself that feel neglected and my relationships. This seems to be a career that often requires a full life integration and commitment to prioritizing work above all else. It feels like I have to turn my whole self over to a life that doesn’t have much, if any, room for the other parts of me. It can feel like I have to choose between two parts of what make me whole. It doesn’t feel very holistic, a word we love to talk about, but to practice is much harder. The inability to set a schedule and plan with others, the guilt of wanting to travel and take time off, and the growing list of interests and friendships that someday I will give attention to. There seems to be a level of respect that is given to those that never take time off, work themselves to the ground, and follow tradition.
I have thought a lot about the particular challenges of financial agency in combination with little personal time, crafting the perfect storm driving some young people out of an agricultural workplace. I have seen several close friends leave agriculture because of the lack of financial mobility and stress on relationships, not because they didn’t love the work. “You do this work because you love it, not because it makes money” is an often repeated phrase I hear many of us say when we don’t have a solution. Sometimes it is a conversation ender around financial discussions. While it is true and forms a group of very passionate, values-driven people, it seems to surrender to a sentiment that there is no room for change. Passion only goes so far for a young person with no equity in land and no familial network of labor, which is a different reality than many traditional ranch operations. I think often that phrase means more; it means you need to struggle to earn respect, you need to prove you want it enough, or ‘we had a tough time and you will too, that is just part of the deal’. Many of us take pride in doing challenging work, and doing it because we love it, but I wonder if this pride gets in our own way of creating a sustainable model. This pride or righteousness can also cause us to look down on others who don’t commit their life to hard honest work. The thing is, we need the others to actually make a food system function. I have a lot of respect for people who are committed to their place, their land, their community, but I also have witnessed a sense of moral high ground to ‘city folk’ and a culture of ‘grit’ being superior to ‘sensitivity’. This attitude drives new people away from agriculture, the very people who are willing to continue this work. A mindset of skepticism towards newcomers, and a prove-it attitude is damaging to the future of an industry that so many of us deeply value, and will contribute to making agriculture a phase rather than a career for many new agrarians.
While this work does indeed cultivate perseverance, tenacity, and resiliency into a person, I have realized that we need to also value relationships, financial mobility, and rest if we want to create a viable livelihood from this work. We need to start respecting personal time for relationships, health, and other interests that feed our souls as critical to the future of agricultural careers. I do not have the answers to financial mobility, and I realize this is a rock and a hard place for many producers who don’t even pay themselves, but we in agriculture cannot change this alone. I am unsettled by the numbness of the broader society to the fact that many farmers and ranchers cannot make a living producing basic nutrients. The fact that we can’t seem to culturally value food enough to support the people willing to provide it, is nonsensical to me. Sometimes I run across people who seem to not take this work seriously, as if it is not a legitimate job. I wonder if this is just ignorance or if this sentiment is because it is hard to sustain more than one thrifty person with an agricultural wage. How to bridge this gap in respect or even knowledge about one another’s jobs seems like an important question that might open pathways for solutions, or more collective responsibility.
For me it is the small moments of beauty that remind me why I want to continue trying to scratch out a life in this world; animals eating, the feeling of exhaustion that will ensure a good sleep, and knowing a lot got done. Sharing a tired feeling at the end of a day with someone is much different than being tired alone. Seeing the physical landscape grow and shed layers as the weather changes. I am fundamentally a heart driven person, and these moments stick in my heart much stronger than money in my bank. However, these are only moments, so how am I living the rest of the time? I think that people inspire me to keep going and looking up, and animals are who keep me grounded and tuned into myself. The cowboy I worked with most days this past season has this warmness about him that immediately gets people smiling. It is something that I realized had more impact on management than any of the technical grazing ideas we spend so much talking about. His ability to get hard things done, calmly, with a joke in hand, resulted in people trusting him and wanting to come together. He takes pride in the most mundane work, without trying to prove anything to anyone, a kind of genuineness that reminds me what parts of myself I want to cultivate. I have met many people that inspire me through the past two years during these apprenticeships, all reflecting different grains of hope in me. I feel particularly inspired by the other apprentices, especially the women. I look up to their perseverance, commitment, and excitement. It seems that there is a cohort of people who do want to make space for and support new agrarians, but that cohort is not always the employers and operators of ranches. I hope we can start to integrate the ideas we talk about around relationships and a new culture of work life balance into the actual workplace and beyond conferences. I hope for a broader societal shift that values food producers; a collaboration of skilled people to craft a food system that can weather the challenges of today. I know change is slow but I would also challenge us all to carve out more time for potlucks and connection in the midst of heaviness.
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.
C4 Farms, New Mexico
Western States Ranches, Colorado
Indreland Ranch, Montana
Moe Ranch, Montana
Moe Ranch, Montana
Land of Grass Ranch, Montana
Barney Creek Livestock, Montana
Diamond D Angus, Montana
Blake Ranch, Montana
Barthelmess Ranch, Montana
Vilicus Farms, Montana
Cooper Creek Ranch, Montana
Shultz Ranch, Montana
Indreland Ranch, Montana
San Juan Ranch, Colorado
San Juan Ranch, Colorado