New Agrarian Voices

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





Sam Schmidt

1st and 2nd Year APPRENTICE

San Juan Ranch, CO

2nd Year Apprentice
Final Reflections on the 2nd Year
November 2021


The two-year NAP apprenticeship can be summed up as an exercise in humility and patience. That first year, you arrive at your mentor site driven by whatever motivated you to apply to the program in the first place, and with a sense of what you don’t know now but will learn over the next eight months. As spring becomes summer, summer fall, and ultimately fall winter, you experience most of the seasonal cycle of a ranch, learn the daily routines, hopefully improve your grass and cattle management skills, and maybe even come to think of yourself as somewhat handy. Some apprentices might exit at this point and take the experience and knowledge they’ve gained to some other operation. 

Yet I would say that you can only scrape the surface in 8 months. The allure of a second year was to deepen my knowledge of place, people, and animals, but I soon realized that the real benefit was realizing not what I didn’t know, but what I didn’t know I didn’t know. Completing the metaphorical climb that is the first year, and reaching the striven-for vista, you look out over the immensity of knowledge and experience that you don’t possess. Some of it you can make out, but most of it is obscured by the haze of distance. The only thing to do is to keep pressing on, closing the distance so that the landscape can take on more clarity. This flourish is only to illustrate a simple fact; to become a good agrarian takes time and persistence.

This realization was the main motivator in my decision to stay on at San Juan Ranch post-apprenticeship. While the allure of moving to a different operation, in a different place, and with an entirely new set of experiences to be had was strong, the desire to put down some roots and continue to plumb the depths of what can be learned here was stronger. However, this decision has raised more questions than it answered: in particular, now that there is no set end date to my time here, how do I see myself continuing to grow here in the long term, and how can I create space for that growth at this operation? A few potential answers come to mind, emerging out of knowledge gained not only of this operation over the last two years, but also the environmental and social realities of the San Luis Valley.

The San Luis Valley is a high desert steppe, ranging from 7,500 to 8,000 feet in elevation on the valley floor, with an average annual rainfall of 7-9”, making it one of the highest and driest agricultural centers in the country, if not the world. Vegetation is generally a mix of brush and hardy native grass species like inland saltgrass, blue grama, and alkali sacaton. While surface water is generally ephemeral based on the low precipitation, the valley is home to significant wetlands due to the widespread presence of artesian wells. These wells are the surface indicator of the huge shallow aquifer that sits below the valley floor. It is this hydrological feature that has allowed such an arid region to become highly productive agriculturally. However, this production has come at a price; the aquifer has been continuously depleted, and with drier and hotter years becoming the new norm, as well as more efficient irrigation technology and industrial cropping practices relying on heavy tillage, the problem has only accelerated in the last decade. Now facing the serious potential of well closures by the state in order to maintain both aquifer levels and water flow in the Rio Grande River, which feeds the southern part of the valley aquifer, the San Luis Valley is at a crossroads where the current agricultural status quo must shift to a sustainable model that is rooted in the environmental realities of the place rather than relying on the extraction of a finite resource.

An inspiration for what this model might look like can be found in the Valley’s agricultural past. Up until the mid 20th century, this was sheep country; rather than running cattle or growing crops, resident peoples of the Valley, from the Navajo to Spanish settlers and ultimately to Anglo ranchers, managed migratory herds of small ruminants. Sheep and goats can cover more ground on rougher terrain, better utilize much of the endemic brushy vegetation, and require far less water than their bovine counterparts. These species’ suitability to this place, and the robust national market for sheep and goats, makes a small ruminant enterprise seem like a no-brainer. In our part of the Valley, there is a significant amount of brushy rangeland that has relatively little value for cattle grazing but would be a great place to run sheep and goats. This would allow for not only running sheep and goats on the San Juan Ranch without significantly impacting the cattle operation, but also for inexpensive leases on neighboring ranches. Furthermore, with increased interest in grazing as a fire mitigation and weed management tool in the West, there would be significant income potential in the future to get paid to graze based on the ecosystem services these animals can offer.

Another potential aspiration of mine has a lot to do with the cultural norms of ranching communities, not just in southern Colorado but throughout the American West. If you are seeking a tangible manifestation of the backwardness of the homesteading mentality of rugged individualism that persists today, look no further than the miles of barbed wire fences that delineate one relatively small cattle operation from another across the same landscape. The emphasis in ranching culture of having your own animals on your own land and trying to build a business, on your own, around those assets has completely hamstrung the efficient and profitable management of animals on landscapes. Instead of lots of small ranches, all with too few animals and too little grass to really be economically viable or to ecologically beneficial, I’d like to see neighbors collaborating on a landscape scale, pooling land assets and animals to create a functional grazing entity at scale. This model would allow for fewer overheads, less labor, better utilization and management of the land base, and ultimately more profitability for participants. I have no illusions about the difficulty of accomplishing this on a large scale, but I think there is a reasonable place to start that could facilitate incremental progress towards this goal. There are a lot of older ranchers in this part of the San Luis Valley who have no clear successors, let alone people to help them with day-to-day management of their operations. Furthermore, while holding no certifications themselves and selling their calves into the commercial markets, most of these ranchers use no or very little inputs and have cattle that are well suited to a grass-based system. I think that most would be receptive to some form of land/animal management agreement that also involved organic certification. At San Juan Ranch, we sell most of our finished cattle to an organic grass-fed aggregator that pays a significant premium and can handle a significant volume of cattle; the weaned calves from these other ranches could be purchased by San Juan Ranch and put into our finishing program, then marketed to this aggregator. Through this hypothetical enterprise, local ranchers could significantly increase their incomes while also taking operational responsibilities off their plates, more regenerative grazing practices could be applied across more acreage in the region, all participating parties could reap the benefits of increased economies of scale, and a model for a scalable collaborative, stewardship focused, and economically viable beef production system could be established.

March 2021

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

The problem with the prompt is that it seems to imply that lacking knowledge about what the program would be like was a limiting factor to my experience. This could not be further from the truth. In fact, one of the greatest aspects of my first year as an apprentice was the near-constant unfolding of the experience. Having my presuppositions of what the program would be like shown to be superficial, or even completely wrong, was what stimulated so much of the value and substance that I gleaned during my first year at San Juan Ranch. I came here with a few years of relevant experience under my belt, thinking that this experience was going to be a step forward in my linear progression as a grazier. Instead, this past year not only revealed how much I didn’t know, but more importantly how much I didn’t know I didn’t know. This is what stimulated and allowed for the tremendous growth I experienced last year; rather than the linear progression I was expecting, I underwent an outward, multidimensional expansion of understanding and skill, my horizons broadening in every direction. So, I guess to answer the prompt, I don’t think I’d change a thing.

April 2020

My becoming involved in agriculture began with the hard realization that the assumptions I had made about my life’s trajectory were wrong. I had just finished a one-and-a-half-year stint at a large corporate law firm in New York City as a paralegal after graduating college, with the intention of continuing on to law school. However, rather than confirming this life path, my time in law had the opposite effect. Rethinking my professional plans, I was able to examine what it was that mattered to me, that I was passionate about. The answer to these existential questions wasn’t too long in occurring to me: food. One day after work, I found myself walking in to a whole-animal butcher shop close to my mom’s apartment, asking for a job. Two weeks later, I had quit my job at the law firm and begun my tenure as a butcher’s apprentice.

I could go on about how meaningful learning the craft of butchery was to me, but what was arguably the most important result of my time as a butcher was my exposure to how the animals we cut were raised. The art and science of producing high quality, nourishing protein in a system that not only prioritized the wellbeing of living creatures, but the land and broader human community as well, captivated me in a way that nothing had previously. It connected my love of eating and cooking to my deep desire to do something, anything, to help ameliorate some of the devastation so present in the modern world.

So here I am, at the outset of my fourth year in agriculture with the new moniker of “New Agrarian.” The Quivira Coalition program seemed like the ideal next step for someone who, at least in his own mind, is moving out of the novice phase of agricultural experience and has committed to a life of land and animal stewardship. The New Agrarian Program is a true apprenticeship, offering its participants an immersive experience that is not solely intended to impart a season’s worth of exposure to a particular operation, but also provide the apprentice with a notion of what a ranch looks like in a holistic sense, not merely from and operational but also from a business perspective. It is this that drew me to the program in the first place, and exactly what I am hoping to have gained come November: not only developing my abilities as a land and animal manager, but also practical experience of how an operation dedicated to regenerative management can also be a viable business. If we as practitioners of regenerative agriculture can’t figure out how to translate our practices and principles into a long term and stable livelihood, this movement has a snowflake’s chance in hell of challenging and changing the status quo.

November 2020

Last March, at the outset of my NAP apprenticeship at San Juan Ranch in Saguache, CO, I thought I knew something about livestock. This would be my fourth season raising animals, and in my mind, I had already stacked up a significant resume. I had worked at a couple different operations, had read everything I could on regenerative grazing, and attended numerous conferences and clinics. In my mind, the apprenticeship would be an opportunity to hone skills I already had, pick up some new ones, live and work in a different part of the country, meet interesting people, and take a step closer to being capable of managing land and animals on my own. 

Over the last eight months, I have certainly satisfied these expectations. Take stockmanship, for example. Previous to this season, moving animals was always more or less of an ordeal; it would either require hours spent erecting complex alleyways out of electric fence to create a pathway from point A to point B, or simple luck as I’d try to steer the herd with nothing but a stream of invective to hurl as animals decided they’d be more comfortable choosing their own destinations. I remember spending several hours during the summer of 2019 chasing an errant steer around a field as his comrades looked on from across the poly line, the whole debacle ending with me throwing a plastic scrub brush at the animal in exasperation (it missed of course). Minutes later, the steer made his way over to the fence and daintily hopped back in of his own accord. Now, after months of moving animals miles across fields, down roads, across rivers, sometimes on foot, horseback, or with canine collaborators, I can comfortably call myself a stockman. 

However, the significance of this experience can’t just be expressed through skills gained or as the result of a string of easy wins. I think of the time my mentor George and I went out for a herd check on a frosty morning in April. The scene was spectacularly peaceful, with the sun coming up over the Sangre de Cristo range and refracting through the ice crystals on the grass. There was little noise other than the crunch of our steps and the low vocalizations of cows cooing over their calves as they got their first drink of the day. My reverie was abruptly shattered by George calling my name. I ran to him, seeing him standing over a cow, prone in one of the corners of the paddock. As I got closer, I could see this was not just a run of the mill emergency like a cow needing her calf pulled; the cow was lying on the ground shivering, her prolapsed uterus, looking like some deep-sea creature, steaming on the ground behind her. Next to her were two newborn calves, both dead. It was clear the cow had had an easier time with the first calf, as its head had been licked off. The trouble must have started with the second twin. Our first course of action was to try to get the cow up, on the off chance we could replace the prolapsed organ or more likely get her in a trailer and to the vet. We pushed and rocked her, pleading with her increasingly desperately to get up. After a few minutes of vain effort, George stepped back, the sad realization of what was now necessary washing over both of us. It was a quiet ride back to the house, but even quieter on the way back, the rifle in the back seat and a few rounds in George’s jacket pocket. We returned to the cow, both of us stroking her back and head and hoping that she might be able to tell by the tones of our voices what we meant as we apologized that things had shaken out as they had. George shot her, and we left her and her calves on a knoll covered in chico brush, so that the buzzards, magpies, and coyotes could return them to the land that had nourished them.

I also think of the creeping dread that settled over all of us as April turned to May and then June without rain. Or the sadness as the trucks rolled away, carrying the cowherd east to literally greener pastures after the driest summer since 2003. Drought takes a deep human toll, with the hopes and optimism of people who make their living on the land drying up with the soil.

It would be easy to try to push these memories away, to try to drown them out with images that recollect happier moments.  Yet, while gut-wrenching, uncertain, and tragic, these were the most powerful experiences I’ve had here. They have helped me grow as a person, expanding my capacities for grief, for compassion, for joy. Through experiencing not just the beauty, but the callousness of the natural world, I gained a deeper understanding of what ranching, and being an agrarian, can be. The realities of ranching are so often conflated with romantic fantasies of an agrarian life against the backdrop of big skies and spectacular landscapes. We expect challenging work but expect to meet it with stoicism and grit. To see George weep after putting down an animal in distress, or both George and Julie, George’s partner and wife and my other mentor, wearing the emotional weight of finding pasture for animals in the midst of drought on their sleeves, completely shattered those assumptions. This is perhaps the greatest insight I’ve gained through my experiences as an apprentice; the challenges of this kind of work, though substantial, do not have to be met with hardness. Instead, they can, and in my mind must, be met with vulnerability, openness, and love. To do anything meaningful, especially when intertwining yourself with a non-human world filled with variables completely outside of your control, there is no other option.

As for next steps, I’ve been graciously allowed to stick around San Juan Ranch for another year, my desire to do so a product of the understanding that this season was just the tip of the iceberg (and perhaps a touch of masochism as well.) I have never once felt, despite the challenges and difficulties this season presented, that I was in the wrong place, or doing the wrong thing. In fact, I feel a renewed dedication to pursuing a career, or more aptly a life, in ranching. I am more convinced now than ever that agriculture is at the nexus, and thus holds the potential to address so many of the pressing issues facing us as both a society and a species. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing, and nowhere else I’d rather be.

More Voices