New Agrarian Voices

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





Steven Franz, APPRENTICE, Tooley’s Trees, NM

My Land Ethic

My philosophy or theoretical framework about how, ethically, humans should regard the land is in no way new or refreshing. It is simple because the consequences are simple, no matter how complex you think it is; we exist because there is life to support us. For now, but not long given the lack of understanding had by our own neighbors. I don’t believe that any state, agency or organization is capable of caring for the sacred land we rely on, but each person, collectively sharing inputs towards a unified goal of being better each day. Better in ways that honor life and create a foundation for actual “progress” and “economy” that all species of our home, personally and globally would enjoy. My land ethic is to work at mitigation of past damages while envisioning and creating environments for the future unseen.

Regenerative agriculture to me is reaching a point in time and place where outputs exceed inputs. One can find examples of such present-day realities on small scales in all climates and environments. The scale must be exceedingly greater in order to unify our grossly disparate, human-ravaged planet. Land-based practices, in my opinion, imply that a society’s focus are mainly concerned with the biological balance of a given area influenced by human populations. These practices would be best undertaken by an educated, unified and capable people. In order to maintain land-based practices over generations, much care should be taken to raise younger generations with emphasis on compassion and gratitude for the gift of life, including its unknowns and challenges. My aim is to pass along a sense of hope with the faith that we can create a far different environment for the generations inheriting our work. Work in harmony with countless biological specialists that need only our cooperation and respect to effect unprecedented changes on landscapes.

Here’s to healthy farms feeding small communities and the masses of cities realizing they are capable of contributing a great deal towards the aim of economical use of finite resources.

Butterscotch and Vanilla
My Second Year at Tooley’s Trees

A late October Sunday included the following: Scratch-made waffles for the four of us this morning; Margaret Yancey, Kelsey Pazera and Gordon Tooley. We ate apple custard pie for lunch, a leftover of the standard Saturday night feasts. I breathed deep while surveying the west field’s south orchard; two hundred foot rows of tasty heirloom varieties. I’ve been fencing them with contentment, knowing I’ve put energy into preserving this rare, beautiful place. I spent time after work writing down Latrodectus hesperus in a notebook with pages of latin species names of those who I’ve encountered, incomplete with notes on where I saw them or practical and medicinal uses. I got some quality time in with one of the finest farm cats I’ve known while listening to relaxing music. Then talked to a very good friend about how I feel good where I’m at and hopeful for where ever I am going. It’s been a good day. The kind that makes up for ones that aren’t. My second season with this crew has built on the first and helped put me in a position I feel optimistic about, one often elusive to me. The words contained herein are my attempt to share experiences I’d not imagined possible after a very rough start and personal struggle with severe depression.  

On our second to last weekend open for business we’ve sold happy customers apples, pears, maples, elderberries, grapes, pines, cottonwoods, apricots, peaches, plums, pie, nanking and sand cherries, mulberries and more. Included with purchases is education on how to plant and keep your plant alive. And hopefully, a sense of kinship and trust that you’ve found one of the few businesses left that believes in honesty and hard work more than simplifying production and compromise of values for an income. The vast customer base created almost entirely by word-of- mouth is impressive in today’s economy.  I believe this nursery has such a reputation due to the fact that Gordon and Margaret are dedicated to living their values. Values in an age that are more and more becoming endangered; responsibility, ownership, honesty, credibility, trustworthiness and actual passion for making the world, not just their world a better place. To be in this place for almost two years has been a great learning opportunity. I feel that in taking the time to work alongside veterans like these has given me insight into what my limitations are, challenges to a lifestyle in agriculture and the possibilities that lay within reach. My hope is to find work that doesn’t feel like work in the sense that it is not enjoyable. Labor that is engaging but not overburdening. I have learned a great deal about my mind and body through this program. My mind has never tried to keep up so furiously with the ever-changing needs on the farm and areas of study; my body with the repetitive movements, heavy nursery stock, awkward and compromised positions. It is in reflection I now acknowledge these cumulative challenges and their effect on my being. Cause and effect evident in hindsight. I have come to know both what I would like to continue doing and the degree to which I feel able to handle what I do not. I realize this apprenticeship is not a metric that I can use to gauge what success or failure looks like, but it has shown me how abstract values of versatility and persistence can manifest into matter. This truth appears to be a standard among mentors I have encountered and many residents of the southwest. 

The more you practice, the better you become. In two years I’ve practiced nursery tasks like grafting, rooting soft and hardwood cuttings, planting, working with irrigation lines, observing healthy stock and the signs of disease within inches of neighboring tissue or plants. I’ve read through books and online articles about diseases like fire blight and phytophthora, pests like coddling moth and cicada. I can identify marmorated stink bugs and snakeflies, snakeweed and penstemon. I’ve picked up on how to see what healthy soil looks and feels like. I’ve learned how a dizzying number of factors determining an orchard site’s viability. Nursery management and orcharding are naturally complementary practices and I’m thankful to have experienced such a unique pairing here. I’ve tried over a hundred cultivars and have been constantly entertained while learning of their origin, their stories and uses by people all over the world. Orcharding is one of my favorite new practices. The physical act of pruning a one-year old whip is about as basic as it gets; one cut at X height. To prune a whip is a task, a chore. To prune an eighty year old, twenty five foot tall and wide Golden Russet that has not been given care for a decade is far more demanding of your mind, body and heart. For me, the art is an honor. A tree can teach many things if you take time to develop relationship with it. All of creation can and will if you pay attention; like the weeds that tell a story of our soils, those indicator species that we would be wise to acknowledge so that we may change our stewardship practices. Annuals, biennials and perennials all germinate and colonize when and where they do for a reason. Succession follows a pattern. Destiny, if you will, is bestowed upon a mustard when cultivation causes hardpan. Perhaps duty is more appropriate, though, when colonization of bare ground results in a degree of erosion protection on dry soil, low in organic matter. Learning who and why and when and how has put my brain in a knot at times, but all these skills are important and I am excited as I share with strangers and friends alike the value of legumes’ ability to harvest atmospheric nitrogen for use in the soil. For grain crops ability to kickstart biological activity in degraded or in a static state. I’ve got a long way to go, but I have learned enough to understand there’s a way to work in a manner that mimics natural patterns and cycles.

There have been many memorable moments! Visiting Freshies of New Mexico in Vallarde for checkups on some bud grafting work Gordon, Kelsey and I did last year was an early one. Chris and Taylor’s greenhouse fruit trees trained to wire for high density planting under poly is quite a sight, as was our impressive success rate in re-establishing cultivars on rootstock so Freshies could replace those cultivars lost; farmers helping farmers. We went to workshops in the spring and fall this year. Los Luceros Historical Site for a fruit production workshop, Mosquero for soil health. Getting out and meeting the growers, extension agents and other professionals, hobbyists, etc. in rural New Mexico is such a pleasure! Mr. Tooley, the living legend, hosts and holds his own workshops to share the wealth of knowledge he has gained in his years. The mood is relaxed, conversation casual and subject matter infinite. No matter if it’s a first timer or repeat attendee, you hear an “ah ha!” or “that is so cool!” countless times throughout the day. The grafting or orcharding workshops seem to be as much of a social event as they are a hands-on learning opportunity. This year especially (because I’m getting better myself) was a grand experience that kept giving as the time passed because I ran into several attendees while running errands who thanked me for helping them successfully graft their apples. Many cried with disbelief that “all ten of them took!”, and all had been more than satisfied with their unique heirloom apple trees and newfound ability. That felt good.  I had a blast when we planted an orchard of nearly five hundred pie cherries on a farm in Avondale, Colorado this spring. It was especially satisfying when we were eating dinner after the first day’s work was done. The owner of the farm began reading about how the very region, with few private trees and zero commercial cherry orchards, was once home to the thriving, productive fruits we were putting in, nearly a century later! The late frosts responsible for bloom kill of apples and other less hardy fruits do not effect the pie cherry so. We became part of agricultural history with this undertaking. The final memory I will mention is my arriving at the location Morgan and Hannah from San Juan Ranch left their vehicles while tending a cow calf herd in the San Luis Valley. I’d driven up a few hours to southern Colorado to visit the ranch and spend some time with other mentors of the apprenticeship program and their apprentices. The two ladies were not in the area, but their cows were, and when I looked up while changing into boots for the day, their herd was making its way onto the road I had come down. Out of nowhere, the two women were calmly directing their herd back into the area they’d been loitering when I parked.  The cows had broken out of the paddock they were supposed to be in, nearly a mile away so it was by sheer chance and fortune that I arrived when I did. The next day was spent moving cattle, in conversation and sharing a bond with the land. I left that evening inspired by their work and motivated to continue mine. This program is a blessing for those who have interest in a life that interweaves human and non-human life, and is especially rewarding when you give yourself to helping others and getting to know their story. 

For not having work lined up next year, I’m in a good head space, comfortable knowing I have even more skills and marketability in any place I choose. Being an older new agrarian at 35, I came into the program with some skills that previous jobs and situations required me to learn. Having a mentor with shared abilities and interests has contributed greatly to my progress. With an unmatched sense of awareness and observation, Gordon has lectured me relentlessly on the importance of paying attention to details. The scale of the operation or scope of the task notwithstanding, using your senses fully in all situations is paramount. Time and constant practice are the only requirements for this exercise that pays in its application. The challenges I see ahead are but opportunities for personal and professional growth. In the months to come, I am methodically planning what I might find myself doing to make a meaningful living and where that may take place. It was at EarthDance in St. Louis that I first heard from Monica Pless (Quivira’s former New Agrarian Program Director) and Matt Lebon (Custom Foodscaping) that it is going to pay dividends if you go slow and start small in agriculture. I owe them for the invaluable advice and Quivira for helping make that experience a reality. I’ve got a pretty pessimistic outlook for the overall direction our global, in-power society is choosing in this age of technology and “progress”, but an optimistic outlook for the ability of those in all industries and places who are willing to heal and leverage natural systems in cooperation with others. The key is communication and knowing we have to work in unison; with a fervor in love with our labor and hope that our “radical” ideas and ideals become common and realized. 

“But what about the title!” you demand? I almost forgot. If you find yourself on the “high road to Taos” (which humors me with its perplexing signage), you could find that farm I’ve written about. In kindness and humility, ask Margaret or Gordon if you can take a walk behind their house. It might only take 10 minutes to complete a loop if you don’t stop. But do… There’s a pair of seventy foot Ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa. See, it’s not that hard to learn some of them) along the trail that will put joy into your soul. One is distinctly a butterscotch pine and the other, vanilla. Magic. 

More Voices