New Agrarian VoicesLearn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.
Sarah Johnson, APPRENTICE, Shultz Ranch, MT
The past 8 months have been an equal measure of exciting, scary, trying, and fulfilling. If you had asked me a year ago where I would have been today I would never have guessed working on a cattle ranch in Montana, but life always seems to have unexpected and beautiful surprises. When I first arrived on the ranch it was early March and we were just about to plunge into calving season. It sort of felt like I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off, and it probably looked that way too. The next 2 months were filled with sleepless nights as I woke on the hour to check the calving heifers. I quickly became proficient at detecting birthing signs and pulling calves when a cow needed assistance. Lunch breaks were taken whenever there was a spare second to stuff a sandwich in your face and projects were worked on when I woke up in the afternoon after a night of calving shifts. There is a certain grit and determination that belongs to people who live this lifestyle. When I would call my mentor to say I couldn’t find a calf or I couldn’t figure out how to do something he would never rush to my aid as I was accustomed to with previous bosses. He would tell me to try again or get creative! In these first few months I had a lot of these moments and slowly I gained confidence and began to rely on myself, my instincts, and whatever tools I had with me to get the job done. This was especially important in the middle of the night when I was the only person awake to make the call on assisting a cow in birth. As my time on the ranch progressed this translated into replacing a fan and radiator in our UTV and constructing a permanent electric fence more or less by myself; things I never thought I was capable of doing.
Though calving season was tiring and a bit of a blur, the season that came after made up for it. It surprises no one that brandings are my favorite social events; mostly because they’re the only social event of the ranch and I’m an extroverted person. All the neighbors were invited and the house was filled with the smell of baking and savory dishes. Coolers were filled with vaccinations and beer and thermasus with coffee. Fifty people came to the ranch with their horses and all rode out together to gather the calves and spend the day branding and snacking and talking and laughing. I had a hard time this year being away from people and living in such an isolated place, but days like this helped lift my spirits again. Without friends to talk to and hang out with regularly my mentor Nick truly became my friend. Some of my favorite memories are simply talking and joking with each other as we work side by side or discussing deep questions on an evening drive out to check the cows. He was always imparting wise advice and giving me learning opportunities whenever they presented themselves. I can’t imagine having a better person and teacher to spend the days with.
As I think about what’s next for me I have a lot of hope and excitement for the new vision this experience has instilled in me. I’ve always wanted a farm but it always came down to what would take the least amount of upkeep while giving me the most profit. I didn’t think about the health of my soil and raising heritage breeds as nature intended and pursuing vertical integration. Now, after having Nicole Masters stay with us and hearing her teach, I know soil is the foundation for all living things and I intend to educate myself further about its power and importance. And after attending the Regenerate conference I feel inspired by the heritage breed and value added talks that changed my thoughts about doing things the mainstream way. And of course my time at
the ranch has opened my eyes to the hard reality of making a living in agriculture. I see how much work we do to raise these cattle and how much we lose to the middle men whether it be the butcher, the truck driver, or the feedlot. There is a saying that goes, “You either learn how to do it or pay someone to do it,” and I’ve always learned. And so my next step is to work at a butchery to learn how to process the animals I’ve been working to raise the last 2 years. I may not become a butcher for the rest of my life but I will learn how to process some of my own animals and maybe in the future build a butchery on my farm for the local community. Whatever may be the case, I am excited to educate myself more about where my meat comes from, how all of it can be used and cooked, and how to connect with my local community through it. Though I won’t be working with animals directly, this is still agriculture in some sense and I’m hopeful that my ranching and farming experience will connect me and make me relatable to the customers and farmers I will be working with.
REFLECTIONS AFTER THE FIRST MONTH
Agriculture has always been a part of my life and looking back I truly appreciate how it’s shaped me into who I am today. I was fortunate to grow up around chickens, pigs, horses, and most other common farm animals that we kept on are small hobby farm in Maine. I loved being around the animals and helping my mom work in her garden. As I grew older and began looking for jobs I found myself gravitating towards jobs that made me work up a sweat and left me sore at the end of the day. I suppose that was the farm girl in me coming though. I just couldn’t imagine sitting at a desk or even working inside for that matter! That led me to working at a horse barn for the duration of high school where I became skilled with a pitchfork. However, I knew working with horses wasn’t my end goal so I explored apprenticeships in fruit and vegetable production, dairy, and now ranching! It’s important to me that I experience as many facets of agriculture as I can so that i’ll be well equipped to hopefully run my own AG business one day. I never really thought about ranching in general (being an Eastocoaster) much less doing it myself, but when someone mentioned the apprenticeship to me I knew it was something I’d love to do. The first two months has been a blur of calves popping out right and left and working on the ranch has not only strengthened me physically but also mentally. Determination was something I thought I already had but working with cows brought me to a whole new level. Nothing is impossible, sometimes you just have to get really creative. Besides the mental challenges there are hard skills I’m hoping to get better at through this apprenticeship. Before March I didn’t know how to pull a calf whether it was backwards, breached, or even coming out normal and now I can say I have a lot of experience pulling all those! At the Shultz ranch we work our cattle on horseback and that’s something I had not done previously. I love working with the horse to accomplish the job and everyday I can see myself improving. Looking into the future I know there will be a lot of fencing, haying, and running of large machinery. Those are things I’m excited to learn to improve my skill set. One thing that I hope to leave with is a better understanding of how to financially support an agricultural business and how to market the product. What ways can you reach the population to tell them about your story and the product you’re selling? How do you get a loyal customer base? How do you stay financially secure with a business that is so dependent on seasons, weather, and demand? These are questions I’m eager to delve into in this apprenticeship and as I continue my journey into the diverse and beautiful world of agriculture.
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