New Agrarian Voices

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

Rex Rutledge, APPRENTICE, Seacross Ranch, MT

REFLECTIONS AFTER THE FIRST MONTH

In college I jumbled around with a few different majors until I found biology. One of my first courses on my way to my biology degree was general ecology. I was hooked the very first day when Dr. Miller started rattling off facts about balanced environments and the complexities and relationships found in just a single hand full of soil. I knew I wanted to go into a career that was related to ecology, I just didn’t know what exactly. 

Fast forward about 18 months; I have graduated and fallen more in love with the science of ecology and I am now living on my family’s newly acquired small farm in southern Mississippi. My family never owned a sizeable piece of land and we were learning to care for goats and chickens while also working to give the property a facelift after years of neglectful prior ownership. I began teaching myself barbwire fencing, tractor operation, livestock care, and brush maintenance (lots of brush maintenance!). This work showed me that I really have a passion for this sort of work, which was outdoors, in harsh conditions, and working with my hands.

I knew needed to find an avenue in which I could combine my love and tenacity for hard outdoor work with my knowledge that I had just spend the last 4 years of my life obtaining. I came across a professor at a potential graduate program that was studying the ecology of Florida range land, specifically a working cattle ranch that was working to increase biodiversity and health of their lands. To me this was an unheard-of concept. I always viewed cattle ranching as a “take only” practice. I never viewed ranching as something that could boost the health of an environment. 

Well, things with that graduate program didn’t work out and I had a bit of a grudge against academia at the time. I figured “forget about doing the research at the ranches, I want to do the work. I want to be the person changing the way livestock is produced in this country”. I began looking into how I could enter the regenerative ranching industry and I came across NAP. It was a very exciting opportunity to come across and the NAP team paired me up with a wonderful ranch with two mentors that come from academic backgrounds. It has really been a dream come true to be a part of a ranching operation that is putting scientifically proven practices to work in a place where grasslands have been diminished by traditional cattle and beef production. 

By the end of my apprenticeship I hope to have gained a sense of how to operate a sustainable cattle ranch. I want to eventually take my skills and go back the South and introduce these concepts to ranchers in hopes of inspiring a sustainable ranching movement. I am striving to learn every facet of the trade and master what it takes to make a profit while also upholding my environmental responsibility I have in this world. 

FINAL REFLECTION 

I knew coming into this apprenticeship that I was going to learn a great deal about cattle. How to move around them, how to make them move around you, how to make a cow happy, those sorts of things. I also figured I’d learn about cattle markets and how to sell beef and run a business. I did learn all these things, indeed, but I also learned so, so much more. I learned things that every cattle rancher should know, and I learned things that have nothing to do with cattle ranching. I learned things that make me lose hope for our country and I learned things that make me feel like we live in the greatest place on Planet Earth. My point is, this apprenticeship with Steve Charter has been so much more than just a regenerative agriculture apprenticeship. It has been the most pivotal 8 months of my life. This experience has, for the first time in my life, pointed me in a direction that I can see myself working in for the rest of my life. Although I may not entirely know where I am headed in agriculture, I know that I want to raise animals the regenerative way, the correct way, and that is more than I have ever know about what I want to do with my life. Don’t get me wrong, I have had my fair share of miserable, heart-breaking, frustrating, make me want to scream moments during my apprenticeship, but 10 years from now when I look back at what all has happened during this apprenticeship, I will think of nothing but pure joy. These 8 months have been an absolute dream come true and I truly cannot thank the Charter Ranch and Quivira Coalition enough for this opportunity.  

Back to what I learned during my apprenticeship. It is a very broad topic of discussion that could take me in 100 different directions. I’ll start with the hard skills that I learned that I use on a weekly, if not daily basis. I learned to ride and work from a horse. This may be one of my favorite new skills. Theres something about having a 1300 lb co-worker who is willing put the team on his back that is unlike anything else. It’s amazing what can be accomplished on horseback. Horses are without a doubt the most important tool on the ranch and they bring so much joy to me to work with. People talk about “working with animals” such as training dogs or being a vet, etc. Working from a horse is literally working with an animal. It’s not giving a command and letting the animal go preform a task. Working from a horse means rider and animal are on the same page. Rider and animal know the final goal and how to get there. It is an amazing feeling when a calf breaks back and both you and your horse see the calf breaking from the herd and your horse already knows we have to act. It’s like there are two minds working a situation, not just the rider on top of the horse. Working with and on horses has definitely taught me patience. If your horse is not ready to do something, you’re not doing it. Period. It’s a relationship that cannot be fully explained with words and I absolutely love it.  

My second favorite thing that I have learned, and perhaps the most important is low stress livestock handling. Us apprentices in Montana were lucky enough to attend a Whit Hibbard clinic where we learned techniques for handling cattle in the corral so that the cattle keep a calm frame of mind and are more easily controlled. These techniques overflow into working a herd out on pasture in big spaces and the joy one gets from successfully moving a herd of pairs over hills, through draws and gates, and still have them paired up and happy is an overwhelming feeling of confidence and joy. I can recall multiple times moving the herd and everything going absolutely perfect. Over 500 animals weighing six or seven times my body weight doing exactly what I want them to do, and after they all arrive at their new location I am jumping in the air and high flying the people I am working withIt wouldn’t be possible without the low stress techniques I learned. On a deeper note, I believe that we owe it to these animals.  They are out working hard, enduring harsh conditions, having a calf year after year, and eating their little hearts out just so we can slaughter and eat them. We owe it to them to treat them with respect and create a low stress environment for them to live their best lives. Cows don’t deserve to be whipped and shocked and run around a pasture. Treat them with grace and they will return the favor in the form of highly productive lives.  

There are hundreds of technical skills I have also learned during my time here. Things such as electric fencing, pasture observation, grazing planning, cattle health, animal husbandry, calving heifers, pulling calves, feeding hay, building corrals, welding, plant identification, wild fire, doctoring cattle, breeding cycles, shipping calves, direct marketing, building fence, raising worms, moving cattle, repairing pipeline, you get the picture. Ive learned a lot. I always wanted a job outdoors working with my hands, and man oh man did I find the job for me. Aside from all the technical skills I learned, I was exposed to some of the greatest people I have ever met. These people taught me mind set. They taught me how to love and respect the land. They taught me how to form relationships with neighbors. They taught me how to take a stand for what I believe in and make a change where I see fit. These people I have been involved with out here have been much more than mentors and co-workers. They have taught me that there is hope for this awful thing we know as the food supply chain. Its people like the ones I have been learning from who are going to change the world, and it all starts with them teaching people like me their wisdom so that we can go out and make a change in our local community, state, or country. I am convinced that raising food in the correct way can change the world 

Before I began my apprenticeship, I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I was eager to work with my hands and I’d be damned if I was going to sit behind a desk all day. I have this burning passion for science, animals, plants, and hard and challenging work but didn’t know a way that I could express all of these passions at the same time, yet alone make a living doing it. I had some jobs that some people would consider a pretty cool and fun gig but nothing really struck my heart. Now that I have been a rancher for 8 months I can 100% say that this occupation bundles all of my passions into one and ranching has struck me right in the heart. I love it. 

A life in agriculture is unsettling to say the least, especially for a young person who will not be inheriting 5,000 acres or a large sum omoney. More times than not the future is unclear to me and I don’t have the slightest idea where I’ll be in 5 years but you better believe me when I say I’ll be raising animals and improving the land somewhere one cow patty at a time One thing Ive learned is that a cowboy is a special type of human being. They are a gritty, get it done type that calls the range home and his herd his family. There arent many real cowboys left but by-gollI’m going to work at this stuff until I am considered a modern-day cowboy in my own eyes. During my time in Montana, I have fallen in love with western ranch culture. I’ll never forget the first time I watched a cowboy heel a calf and drag it to the fire for branding. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. I feel like a little boy when I think of all the cool stuff I have gotten to do in my first 8 months in Montana.  

Aside from ranching, this has been a magical time in my life. Ive experienced so many new things. I took up fly fishing, which I am totally addicted to now. Ive been all over this beautiful state, camping, exploring, hiking, and riding my motorcycle. Ive had the luxury of sitting next to a woodburning stove while it snows outside (something Florida boys don’t get to do). I met an amazing girl and made her my partner. Ive gotten to sit around a table with a few “real” cowboys drinking whiskey and listening to them tell stories. Ive got to spend every single day with my dog and that is something I will never take for granted. These are just a few things that come to my mind when looking back on my apprenticeship. I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world and I am so very excited for my second stint beginning next March! 

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