New Agrarian Voices

Learn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.





Noelle Mcdonough

1st and 2nd year APPRENTICE

San Juan Ranch, CO

Interview with Taylor Sanders, NAP Colorado Manager
June 2021

Taylor: What does a typical day look like? Is there a general rhythm even if days fluctuate?

Noelle: Well, right now, on a typical day, Sam [her partner] and I live near a half-circle pivot with native grass species and so we check to see if it needs irrigation with our puppy who is just over 5 months. Typically, we get to the main ranch around 8:30am. Most times, we try to get caught up with the schedule the night before, but we’ll have a meeting in the morning to cover everything that needs to get done. We’re waiting to move our pairs up to BLM [Bureau of Land Management land]. We’re also going up to BLM and checking on the spring water that feeds the stock tanks. 

In the afternoon, we rotate cooking responsibilities and we have a longer lunch where we sit down and try not to talk about work, but we always talk about work. 

We also have to check on sprinklers and eventually we’ll hay. Generally, we make sure everything is functioning well. 


T: What items do you always take with you to your work day?

N: I usually have my red book, which has all of our dams and calves to write my notes. If there’s a sick calf, if we turned on the sprinkler, etc. Right now I have a pencil in my hair. I try to wear a bandana in case it gets dusty in the corral. Sunglasses, and chapstick. It’s pretty dry and pretty sunny. And channel lock pliers- that was our orientation gift!


T: What is your favorite place on the ranch?

N: There’s a corner of one of our pastures that has some willows that are kind of growing near the ditch and I like going over there and sitting. The shade and the cover of the willows are really nice.


T: What do you like to do on your day off? 

N: I really like to cook and bake. I don’t always do that, but in the winter I was experimenting with making biscuits. Right now, I’m making jun, a green tea and honey ferment. I like being outside and having my cup of coffee in my yard and not having to rush out the door.


T: Do you listen to music/podcasts while you work? Do you have a song/artist/podcast that gets you through the more monotonous tasks?

N: I’ve been listening to a lot more music. I’ve really been digging Colter Wall at the moment. I try to sing like him even though I’m a woman and I can’t get my voice that low [laughs]. Also Johnny Cash. Anyone who comes on his radio. Riddy Arman also has a really beautiful voice. I also listen to audiobooks. The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver and some John Steinbeck.


T: How are you getting to know the community around you?

N: I am definitely this year more than last- we were super cautious last year with Covid. This year, we’ve been way more social. I’m actually exhausted. The people we have met are really great. Because we’re here for a second year, conversations I’m having are more in depth and not so superficial. We meet a lot of people through George and Julie [Noelle’s mentors]. They know a lot of the other ranching families and people doing organic farming in the valley. We got to meet the chair of the Farmers Union. I also got to drive down with the trucker to truck cattle down to Chama, NM and we got to know each other. It was really interesting and fun for me, stuff like that. 


T: What is a skill you have learned that you now feel confident in?

N: Patching tires. [laughs] I feel like that’s one of the main skills that Sam and I learned last year, just given how dry it was. The dirt roads were horrible and we experienced a significant amount of flat tires. 


T: What is something about your job that challenges you? 

N: I feel like there’s always a learning curve. Even when you feel like you might be getting something, there’s always a new way to go about it. Not getting insecure about not knowing things. Allowing myself to be comfortable with the fact that this is something I didn’t grow up with and allowing that to be the truth. I love learning and taking on new things, but it can be overwhelming sometimes, when you’re learning 5 different new things. It’s taxing sometimes when you constantly feel like you don’t know something.


T: What is something that has surprised you about the experience so far?

N: Coming from the east coast, just experiencing drought in person. You read about drought or wildfires and being so detached; it doesn’t really affect you. Last year it was really dry. It wears on you. It wears on your spirit, physically. Everything feels so taxing. Right now [early June] we’ve gotten almost more rain than we did all last summer. To see this place green and alive, it’s a whole different place. It makes you appreciate it. That was really surprising. I knew coming here that it was dry, but having never lived in a dry place and never having to think about it, and what you’re going to do with the livestock. Now, drought is always in the back of your mind.


T: What are you looking forward to in the rest of the season?

N: Getting to know the BLM. That’s such a large creature I still don’t know at all. We’re gonna have an early morning move and we’ve talked about camping up there before. I’m excited to live a cowgirl life for a bit. 


2nd year Apprentice
March 2021

What do you know now, that you wish you had known when you started your first year?

Before coming out to Saguache, Colorado and working with George and Julie at San Juan Ranch I wish I knew the patience needed for the process of immersing myself into a completely new livelihood. I obviously knew that the New Agrarian Program was something I had never partaken in before and that I was going to learn a ton of information about animal husbandry and regenerative practices; but I was not prepared for the floodgates of knowledge to open and realizing that I really didn’t know anything about growing as a person. As kids it is expected that we are constantly learning and trying new things, but as adults for some reason we lose this drive to get outside of our comfort zones and dare to even say, “I don’t know how, but would like to learn.” Throughout the last year in this program I had to remind myself that ranching is a completely new activity for me and learning/trying something new as an adult was not a failure but growth.

April 2020

There were several forces at play that caused agriculture to find me and encouraged me to apply for the Quivira NAP apprenticeship at San Juan Ranch in Saguache, CO. Growing up in the suburbs right outside New York City there was seldom an opportunity to be immersed in agriculture let alone any inkling as to where my food came from. 

Cooking was extremely impactful on my upbringing. Both my mother and grandmother expressed their love and care through the meals they put on the table. My passion for cooking led me to pursue a food service/management degree during undergrad, with the intention of going to culinary school after graduating. However, my last semester I took a socio-economic food course that completely changed my perspective. My passion grew from just cooking food to supporting sustainable farming practices and combating the injustices of food insecurity. 

After graduating and working various jobs in the hospitality industry I didn’t have that same passion and drive for cooking in kitchens that I had for changing the food system, but I felt at a loss for what my part within that change would be. Agriculture was never an option that was presented to me, but I knew I was never someone who could sit in a cubicle or under florescent lights all day. I decided to WWOOF and that going to Hawaii and volunteering on a six acre off-grid permaculture farm would help to clarify my path as well as help to reconnect with nature which I was so desperate for.

During my experience in Hawaii I worked with goats, pigs and poultry which helped me rediscover my passion for animals. As a young girl I would tell everyone who wanted to hear it that I was going to be a veterinarian and would constantly pester my parents to allow me to get a dog although I knew my apartment building would not allow them. Having the ability to work with animals very closely and understand their integral and impactful role in land health was the “a-ha” moment for me. This was my part in the necessary change for our planet, our food, and our relationship with the two.

After my eight month apprenticeship at San Juan I expect to have more confidence in my understanding of the fundamentals of holistic management and how to apply them to an operation. I have no doubt that ranching and regenerative agriculture is where I belong, but having a better grasp of where I am going and how to get there is what I hope for after this apprenticeship. I am so incredible grateful to be in my current position, and to have gained mentors that are constantly growing and evolving themselves. I want to provide this experience and education to other people who, like me, have felt stuck and unsure. I want to pass forward the excitement of finding your place, putting down roots and starting the journey of thriving within regenerative agriculture.

November 2020

As the weather starts to change and responsibilities move from fencing large pastures and trekking across the Rio Grande to forking hay off the trailer close to the home ranch I get to reflect on my past 8 months here in South Central Colorado at San Juan Ranch. There is one word that first comes to mind: malleability. I’ve learned through my experience here that ranching requires adaptability and the ability to bend and change under great amounts of stress. Complicated calving season, drought, not going onto our BLM range, large numbers of diphtheria cases, the list could go on and on with the challenges we faced here on top of the pandemic. 

With each stress came the moment of decision making on George and Julie’s part and I was always amazed by the rational and out-of-the-box decisions they were making. Decisions I did not even realize were on the table. I think most people passionate about land stewardship have this capacity of allowing the organic answer to come to them, along with their experience working within nature’s uncertainty. I am thankful to have come to this realization so that I can train myself to think outside the parameters I see in place. 

In the moment of these stresses it was so easy for me to feel like I had failed, or wasn’t the right choice for this operation. I realized, however, just how grateful I was for the immense amount of learning I was able to receive due to all of these hard and tough events. Being told how to react and plan for situations versus being thrown into said situations always produces a better learning situation for me. Having the ability to be immersed in the challenges made for a lot more opportunities to grow.

Some of the highlights from the last 8 months might seem like mundane events but to me they grounded me in the present and helped me see the beauty in little moments. Raking hay into piles at the end of August was one of my favorite experiences of the apprenticeship.  I got a lot of time to sit and contemplate or sing various Johnny Cash songs as loud as I wanted to, since the blare of the tractor drowned me out. Windrows being dragged into piles is so simple yet so incredibly important for the meadow and keeping the nutrients and biodiversity from our pastures on our pastures and not hauling it away. The beauty in walking through the piles at sunset will forever be a happy place. There was one afternoon while I was raking that I spotted a coyote not too far away, watching me and inspecting the piles I had finished, looking for something to eat that had been displaced by me. The coyote soon was sitting and watching me from 20ft away in a similar way that Huck, George and Julie’s pup does. This interaction with a wild animal really stuck with me and I love experiencing these situations where nature brings two souls together for no reason other than because she can. 

Being horseback moving cattle was another highlight. Having the opportunity to ride with George and learn how to listen and understand how my actions are affecting the horse was a revolution as to how to work with an animal rather than work an animal. Loping on the dirt roads made me feel like I could have been part of the Hat Creek crew which always seemed like a far off dream. Riding Pinche bareback back to pasture after a successful day moving cattle was another momentous day for me. Finally, I’m starting to feel comfortable working with a horse and although I still have a long road ahead, I don’t feel like a novice anymore.

The amount of growth I have encountered throughout my time here is a list that could probably max out my word allotment for this assignment. There are particular moments that stick out to me the most where I actually said to myself, “Wow, I can do this and that is pretty cool.” For example, driving a 6-speed with a trailer attached, backing up to a loading ramp (alone) loading heifers in a low stress manner and safely getting them to another location. Loading sick calves into our corrals and diagnosing and treating them the way George would have. Doing big road moves and not having a calf run back. Starting to understand pasture planning and having ideas that are actually useful. Catching a horse and picking up their feet. Doing a half decent job at facilitating a meeting. Having an inkling of an understanding of how water moves and how to manipulate water. All of these moments were important to me because they proved to me that although I did not grow up with ranching in my life, this is where I am supposed to be.

I felt the discomfort of learning something new a lot during this apprenticeship, but I have started to enjoy this feeling because it means I am becoming a more courageous person. In my bio for the NAP program I had written that I was hoping for some clarity and figured after the 8 months at San Juan I would know what my “next steps” would be. Well, I don’t. I feel like I am still scratching the surface of what my role is in this world. I do know that I will continue doing the awkward work of learning new things and being a “green dude”. It is safe to say that wherever my curiosity takes me next, animals, dogs and being a steward of the land will be the nuts and bolts. 

I remember when I came for my site visit in January with George and Julie. Waking up, having coffee with George and watching the sun come up over the Sangre de Cristo range. The swirling rainbow sorbet colors that crept into the crisp blue sky over the snow nestled peaks was enough to make me cry, and I knew that this was the place I wanted to be. These moments of unfathomable beauty are why I got into agriculture and what keep me invested even after the worst day. 

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