New Agrarian Voices

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





Shannon Maes, 2ND YEAR APPRENTICE, San Juan Ranch, Colorado

Final Reflection 
November 2022

The past two years have been empowering, transformative, inspiring and full of extraordinary beauty. I have more skills, abilities and a deeper understanding of what it means to live with others and with the land than I used to think possible, but there have also been serious and real challenges. 

One of the first hardest things was finding a job on a ranch using regenerative practices. For over a year through endless web searches, cold calls and emails, applications and interviews my family and friends teased me that I worked harder to get hired on a ranch than I did to get accepted into the college of my choice – and it’s true! 

Than there was actually summoning the courage to buck convention (and in some ways common sense) by changing my life completely and choosing to follow a path in agriculture in my homeland, the drought-stricken southwest.Than, going from being valued as someone with skill and experience in my work to being almost a total beginner and making lots of embarrassing mistakes, being transplanted into a new community and suddenly having much less control over my own time, my living situation and my work/life balance. On top of that were money worries because of earning so little income, getting used to working long hours, weeks and months, being both too busy and too tired for months at a time, the heavy sadness of animal suffering and occasional death, and then a surprising one, how difficult it can be to bridge the gap between worlds with family and friends who are not involved in ag. 

The dominant culture of agriculture reinforces existing social injustices in the same ways the rest of society does, by devaluing people based on class, gender, race, origin, background and ability among other aspects of ourselves. For example, ranching neighbors and the brand inspector speaking only to my male coworkers or boss while ignoring me completely or speaking to them about me as though I wasn’t there, as well as folks making assumptions about my skillset and interests because I’m a woman. And, there is an attitude within agriculture that says I may never quite belong because I was raised in a big city. These things hurt and make me angry, not just for myself but for all of us. I know this is not unique to my experience, and I know we can do better. 

A related issue is the difference in access to healthy local food and land (among other important things) that is based on race and wealth. Why is there no farmers market or health food store in some towns while others enjoy many sources of fresh local food? Why is most rural land owned by white folks? As a producer, why is it so hard to feed our own communities first, our own families even, and still make a living? Looking ahead to the career in agriculture that I’m working to create, the things that scare me the most for myself and for others on a similar path are burnout, high financial/physical/emotional risk and the possibility that we may not see this system change as quickly as we all need it to. Can we survive or even thrive until then?

What keeps me going is that I love the closeness and connection with the land and with animals that I get to feel every day. I love raising beautiful healthy food for people in the best way I can and I truly love the coworkers and community that I’m beginning to find who collectively inspire me even more. I’m deeply grateful for everyone in my life who has been so supportive, for the people who have hired and mentored me, for the friends I’ve met who are on similar paths, for everyone who is committed to building their life around caring for the land/water and feeding people, and for all the good things that haven’t happened yet but which we are so committed to bringing into being.

My hope for myself is that in skill, knowledge, care, sweat and joy I can be one of many who are carrying forward the best of old traditions and blending them with responsiveness to the needs of the present. My hope for all of us is that we’re headed for a future of connection and reconnection, because that is the biggest piece missing right now. This means a future where everyone is closely tied in some way to the land we live on, the natural and cultural history of that land with it’s unique needs and strengths, the food we eat, the community that surrounds each of us and the knowledge and skill that makes all this possible. A future with abundant, healthy, affordable, local food access for all, where small to medium scale ethical/traditional/regenerative agriculture is an economically viable career and a calling that is both equally and more accessible to everyone, in which rural communities thrive, every person is valued equally, and the whole of the living world around us including land, animals, water and each other are held in reverence. 

* * *

Since I read the statement above during the conference, I’ve decided that I want to add a note of thanks and sincere appreciation for everyone involved in the NAP program and especially for my mentors, coworkers, coordinators and both Leah and Julie. Without this program I may not have found a way into ranching at all, let alone with the friendship, guidance and support of such wonderful people. My mentors Emily, George and Julie (and Noelle and Sam too) have all gone far out of their way to create a positive space for learning and used occasions when I’ve made mistakes as opportunities to give feedback, teach or lead by example. Without their compassion and cooperation I know I wouldn’t have arrived at the point in my journey that I’m at right now. It’s perfectly clear to me after two seasons of apprenticeship that being a mentor in this program is not easy and I’m very grateful to these brave and loving people who are willing to do it. I hope in time I can pay their kindness, patience and generosity forward.

 I also really want to share how much my friendship with the program coordinators, Tarryn and Taylor in particular, have meant to me. Last year Tarryn went out of her way to call and check on me frequently when she knew I was having a hard time. Her kindness, authenticity and amazing ability to bring humor into any situation was always exactly what I needed. She is a dear friend and was an important source of contact and support throughout last year and part of this year. I’ve also really enjoyed getting to know Taylor more during this year, she is uniquely skilled and committed to going above and beyond in her role. Also I hope I will never forget this moment, the first evening of the conference I wore shoes that gave me blisters and Taylor literally taped my sweaty toes for me to protect them from further ruin!! Not everyone would gladly do that for another adult as part of their job, but she did for me with her characteristic bright smile and graciousness. Thank you so much Tarryn and Taylor!

This program wouldn’t be what it is without the commitment both Leah and Julie make to it’s quality and culture, and especially to each apprentice individually. Julie has spent many hours listening to me while wearing her ‘therapist’s hat’ and my growth as a person this year has been in part through her care and cultivation. I admire her natural talent, considerable skill and experience as an educator, and in every way her deep love and support for each of us and for this program shines through. What we are trying to do together is extremely ambitious and I love that this program exists as a vehicle for bringing together our collective dreams, good intentions and future visions while nurturing the community and mutual support that ultimately makes or breaks our success. I’m so grateful to have been involved in this program and to continue being a member of the Quivira community.

First Reflection- 2nd Year
May 2022

Aldo Leopold wrote that “we can only be ethical in relation to something we can see, understand, feel, love or otherwise have faith in.” That speaks to a belief I share that we all need ways to know and love the land for ourselves. People both famous and largely unknown have influenced my land ethic as it is today, as have my own relationships and experiences with whole places and individual plants, weather patterns, animals, rocks and soil types. Like many people I was born with a strong love for all the living systems and cycles collectively called land, and so far my life has been largely about learning how to understand and act on that love. Over time my sense of the ethic I think the land community asks of each of us has deepened and I’m sure will continue to evolve, although the basis is simple and durable. 

For me a land ethic comes from striving to build and maintain a caring and reverant relationship with all aspects of the place I live, in which I recognize all the gifts the place offers and find ways to reciprocate. I think a land ethic should also use the human history and current presence of a land or seascape as one of many lenses through which to view the unique nature and character of the place. Just as any relationship asks that we continue to learn and grow a land ethic asks us to keep learning about the place where we live, revisiting our understanding of how we fit within it and reimagining ways in which we could reciprocate all the gifts the land gives us. Really a land ethic is the same as the ethic that guides our interactions with other humans, individually and as a group. Social justice is part of a land ethic and vice versa, neither is complete without the other. 

At its core I think regenerative agriculture is about redefining relationships for positive change and working towards a collective vision of a better future for all. This could be as a focus on improving land health, business/organizational structure and profitability/viability (to reduce financial stress and the constrained

decisions made under it plus improve staying power on the land), addressing social justice issues in the local community or ideally all three. At best I think regenerative agriculture is about recognizing global problems, collaborating to create local solutions, continually working to better understand context and changing our policies accordingly. It’s driven by ethics and responsiveness to the needs of all as well as an ever-changing social and environmental situation. Even though the concept is simple there are probably endless ways of practicing regenerative agriculture, and I think the most important part is continuing to deepen a society-wide conversation about how we feed ourselves, relate to each other and take care of the place where we live. Agriculture is such a natural and strategic place to forge this connection between the environmental and social justice movements as well as all other aspects of society because it is all about how we live together in the world. 

At this point I hope my future will be about continuing to learn and practice regenerative ranching while actively creating space for others to get involved so that they can better live their own land ethic. Although ranching can be very solitary work I believe that at its best it can help bring people together to make good things happen. Collaboration is really important to me and I also get a lot of joy through being involved in community and being helpful. During my apprenticeship last year I had an idea I’m pretty excited about. I’d like to learn more about grazing associations and maybe eventually start or join one that aims to get more people involved in grazing for land health.

Final Reflections
November 2021

Late October sunset at Sol Ranch throws long, blue shadows from the Mogote hills across the valley, turning the southern slope of Conjilon Mesa a dusty rose-gold. Blue grama, sideoats grama, galleta, sand dropseed, wolf tail and many other grasses, so familiar to me now, wave blonde-cured seedheads in the breeze. Bottlebrush squirreltail grass (a cool season species) is adding new leaf growth and some individual blue grama plants are quietly unfurling a second round of seed heads, delicate yellow anthers trembling in the slightest breath of wind. We had a nice rain the first day of October, less than an inch but it fell gently. The response in plant growth has been incredible. In the month since, some plants have added new leaves and a whole new cohort of seedlings have appeared. I don’t know if they will survive the winter but its hopeful to find thread-stage grass seedlings and brand new forbs the size of any single letter on this page where before the soil was bare. Although I grew up in the southwest and am proud to call this region home, I guess I’ve lived in the East long enough that I am completely amazed and humbled by how little moisture these arid-adapted native plants need to thrive. With several weeks since any rain has fallen the soil is in its normal state of powdery dryness on the surface, clean and dusty. On several mornings recently storms passing far to the west in the Sangre de Cristo mountains have filled the air with humidity, sweetly scented with the beginning of dormant season decay.

Months ago while making plans to end up exactly where I am now, completing an apprenticeship on a working ranch, I hoped to learn to better pay attention to the land. If there is one thing that always gives me joy and inspiration it is the elegant resilience of natural systems, down to the smallest features. Every landscape has its limits and challenges. Western landscapes require us to become skilled at working with very little and/or very irregular moisture regimes and other extremes of climate and weather. Because of that it can take a long time to see the full implications of management practices, so extra care and close observation is needed. Within the day to day rhythm of work here I have become better at paying attention, at actively noticing the details that lie at the heart of caring for both land and livestock. Some of those details include new seedlings, acceleration and plateau in grass growth, shades of color changing in individual species and in these grasslands on a larger scale as the seasons continue, the progress of soil erosion, the sounds and smells of the land varying by the season and time of day. It is so much fun, so gratifying and also such a relief to see ways in which the ecosystems here on the ranch are functioning well and how the cattle are part of all that along with the wild grazers. As someone who became curious about ranching as a way of relating to the land and improving the food system, my newly acquired first hand experience of the real genius in this system is a profound and visceral affirmation. Conversations with my mentor and the extent of grazing planning, production work, financial assessment and bookkeeping that I’ve been involved in have helped me begin learning to see the whole more clearly now, how the business of grazing/selling animals or meat dovetails with and must be balanced by land stewardship which is able to think, plan and value long term.

The landscape and the processes that shape it are long term, and a single human lifetime is so comparably short. How do we actually become longterm in our thinking and land management? How can we work together to move ourselves and everyone in our communities beyond short-term survival and crisis mode? This is a question that weighs heavily on me these days. I love the active and passionate land stewardship community I’ve found in New Mexico and in the West more broadly, and that too is what I imagine will continue to anchor me to this work in the future. As I embrace it I also recognize that this community still has far to go in terms of inclusion, access and recognition of whose shoulders we stand on. I have come to believe that farmers and ranchers really want to be good land stewards and intuitively know that the health of the land they live and work on is the same as that of their family, community and themselves. So the question is also very much how to make common the education and tools needed to care for land, water, ourselves and each other. How can we improve land access for people that want to get directly involved? The changes we want and need can’t come about without dialogue and cooperation. We have to get real about how society values food, water and ecological health as well as the people on the ground who produce and steward those systems. These issues are ones I plan to address however possible in my next step and for the duration.

I feel extremely fortunate to be planning what my next step on this path will be, extremely fortunate to be able to dream and make choices. I’ve loved what I’ve learned and spent time doing over the past nearly eight months, and as I’ve been learning I’ve become aware of how much more there is to know about all of it. In order to become a better grazier, land manager and food producer I’ve realized that I need to learn a lot more about grazing for land health, forage assessment, stockmanship, and grazing planning. Although I’ve been exposed to many ways of range health monitoring there’s a lot more there, and I’d like to be involved in creating and implementing a monitoring plan for an operation at some point. Hopefully I will be able to find another apprenticeship or work opportunity that will require me to continue learning and practicing those skills during this coming season. I’d love to land on an operation where I can help create and adjust the grazing plan and move animals daily. Since I was little I’ve spent quite a bit of time around and working with horses but have been surprised how little of that experience has really been applicable to horse work on this ranch. If I spend more time ranching in this area or in another place where horses are an important part of the ranching culture I will definitely need to learn more about working with them in a safe and effective way. Ranch and business management skills are essential to sustain the work of managing land and producing food, so I’ll be actively looking for ways to continue learning and practicing those as well.

A healthy working landscape long term is only possible through collaboration. Although it’s an area in which I have long had an interest and placed value, I still have a lot more to learn about optimizing collaboration and building trust within relationships. Relationship really is everything. In my next apprenticeship or job I (always do) and will continue to look for a situation where my boss or mentor and I work well together, can become friends and grow that friendship long into the future. I also want to see more examples of how civic-minded ranchers can cultivate meaningful and positive relationships with their local community, in their capacity on the land and also as a person. There is so much potential for creativity and collaboration in problem solving the many challenges we face, and I know we won’t get far unless we can work together. I will always be grateful to the people that have helped me at every turn since I began to get involved in agriculture, especially my mentor Emily who must have seen something in me a year ago that made her want to bring me on as her apprentice this year. I owe her and her family a huge debt of gratitude for the opportunity to get some practical experience in this field that can be so hard to get involved in. I’m also super grateful to Quivira and especially to Leah and Tarryn for their encouragement and support from the beginning. Its been a jam-packed, hugely rewarding eight months and a hell of an introduction to ranching.

May 2021

Agriculture chose me more than I chose it. I never saw myself as a farmer or rancher when I was a kid, and I would have told you my dearest hope was to become an ecologist. But, like many others in this community I also knew I wanted every day to fill me with the sights, sounds, smells and textures of the land and my memory to be a human form of it, like layers of sediment deposited by wind or water. At that point I had no idea that agriculture could offer such intimate acquaintance with the environment and be such a powerful platform for stewardship and positive social change. Since I was very young I’ve been searching for a way to combine my deep love for the land, desire to help strengthen and be useful to my community, passion for ecology and growing commitment to social justice. I’ve been many things already in life, including a farmworker, environmental science teacher, dairy hand, museum gardener, school garden coordinator and now a New Agrarian Apprentice. Here in the gorgeous open country and sweeping skyscapes of northern New Mexico I’m so incredibly fortunate to be living, studying and working daily towards the practice of regenerative ranching. It feels really good to be here at Sol Ranch, by turns both uncomfortable and deeply rewarding, gravitating towards the radical center even as my understanding of what it all means continues to evolve. From this apprenticeship experience I hope to learn as much as I can about good grazing management, balancing the needs of herds, humans and lands, and the business skills necessary to allow such a business to thrive and continue. I’ve already gained so much just by being in this place. Somehow it’s been almost a month to the day since I arrived and already I can see that the coming months will be only enough time to get my feet wet.

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