New Agrarian VoicesLearn about the impressions and experiences of each year's cohort of apprentices in their own words.
Shannon Maes, APPRENTICE, Sol Ranch, NM
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.
REFLECTIONS AFTER THE FIRST MONTH
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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Richards Ranch, California
Indreland Ranch, Montana
Moe Ranch, Montana
Moe Ranch, Montana
Land of Grass Ranch, Montana
Barney Creek Livestock, Montana
Diamond D Angus, Montana
Blake Ranch, Montana
Barthelmess Ranch, Montana
Vilicus Farms, Montana
Cooper Creek Ranch, Montana
XK Bar Ranch, Colorado
Shultz Ranch, Montana
Indreland Ranch, Montana
San Juan Ranch, Colorado