New Agrarian Voices

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

Sam Schmidt, APPRENTICE, San Juan Ranch, CO

REFLECTIONS AFTER THE FIRST MONTH

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.

FINAL REFLECTIONS 

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.

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