New Agrarian Voices

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





Susan Elder

1st and 2nd Year APPRENTICE

Charter Ranch, MT

2nd Year Apprentice
November 2021

The last time I drove away from Charter Ranch was much like the first time I pulled in – unsure of what was to come, sad of what I was leaving behind, knowing that I was taking the best next step I could take. These parallel feelings tempted me to think that I had not grown much from the time I came to the ranch to this day I was leaving it; as I settled into the road ahead of me, I felt my mind gear into that space where I was ready to listen to my own thoughts. I do all of my best thinking on long walks – drives are a close second and I had a good one before me leaving Montana and heading to Kansas. Here are a few of the ways I realized that I had grown. 

From the first time I visited Charter Ranch I knew it was the place that I needed to be. There was a blizzard that first afternoon I drove in from Missoula that made the few turns (tricky enough to find on a clear day) nearly impossible to see. I had good instructions in hand, but still stumbled my way to that ranch house one misstep at a time. When I finally found the drive, crossed the cattle guard, turned my car toward the lonely clump of structures out on the snowy prairie, I felt a hesitant but undeniable hope this was a place I could begin living and learning in. It did not take long for my mentor and I to know that we had lots to learn from one another. I had always loved the idea of living with and working in grasslands, but meeting Steve Charter, I knew I wanted regeneration to be my life’s work. I was offered the position that day and took it. 

I took to the lifestyle and work of the ranch quickly. I started in with all the confidence of a healthy newborn calf: eager to use all four wobbly legs to take me where I needed to go. I wanted to act on these ideas I was in love with. I wanted to know this work, I wanted to know these people, I wanted to soak all that I possibly could from this time in my life. And I grew – painfully sometimes, gracefully others, but growth, nonetheless. 

In my first year ranching, I fell in love with it all. When it comes to love, I’ve always been one to fall a little recklessly (for better or worse). I fell in love with the ideas of regenerative agriculture and the application of those ideas through working cattle on a landscape and all the intricate details and characters that come with this work. I felt like I was one with it all. But, like most love stories, the shine began to wear a little in my second year and I felt all the pieces of my ego slowly creeping back into place, again separating me from this place, this work, these people. 

I began to realize that ideas are only as powerful as the people who live them and when it comes to people, two is better than one and a three strand cord is not easily broken. The Bible taught me that. People are made to be in community and I don’t think it’s any accident that the words community and communicate come from the same root word. To be in community well, we have to sound common ground; words are simply a medium that keep our hands, minds, and hearts at work and at rest in common. And this is the hardest work of it all. 

You have to get bucked off that horse sixteen times before you’re a true cowgirl, Susan. That’s what my dad used to tell me growing up. That number always seemed a little high to me. Seemed to me that by the third or fourth time you better get smarter than the horse you were riding or save yourself and give up life in the saddle altogether. Life, and especially life working with animals and land and people, is a horse you can’t expect the same ride out of twice – she’ll buck when you least expect it. 

This year bucked me pretty good. At the end of it though, I have to say that I’m a little closer to being the cowgirl I want to be and I got a hell of a ride out of the deal too. And for all of that and all the people that helped me get here, I am forever grateful.

March 2021

What do you know now, that you wish you had known when you started your first year?

I wish I would have known that when I began working with animals, with soil, outside, with an engaged body and mind and spirit too — all of this would ruin me for any other career I might encounter in my life. Not that the ruining is a regret of mine. Not at all. But if I had known this, maybe I would have taken the time to try out something else, some other line of work just to give it a go. Maybe I could have been a professor with a tiny lamplit office, seemingly wal-less for all the books. A ballet dancer? No that wouldn’t fit. Perhaps a marine biologist. I had a teacher in 10th grade say I’d be good at that, not sure why. I don’t think I would have minded being an anthropologist if I didn’t have to sit in too many fluorescent lit lecture halls. Anyways, if I could go back and tell the me of last winter anything, I think I would have told her to get ready to encounter work that you will love, work that will make you happy about what you do in a day and the skills and knowledge you get to build for the future. And if you have any inkling to try anything else out, better go now — you may have to wait for your soul’s next go round to have another try at it.

April 2020

My path to working with Land has been a bit wandering. I’d like to capitalize “Land” because to me, Land is a character. Throughout the narrative of my life, Land has appeared (or I have become aware of her) around the corner of every plot curve — influencing, inviting, being. To me, Land is more than soil, or the plants that people its surface — it is all of us, we living beings, great and small. We are Land. Even as we observe her, we are her.  Despite or because of my wandering path to Land (or back to her), I feel that I am beginning again where I started, and discovering Land, in all her character, as if for the first time.

I was raised as much by Kansas prairie and farm animals as by good parents. Our family found its way to a small farm outside of Wichita, Kansas, because my father needed space to raise a herd of horses and my mother needed space to raise a herd of children. Some of my first memories are riding on the neck of my father’s horse, coarse mane hair flowing through the grip of my small hands. As an introverted child, I spent a great deal of my time in the quiet companionship of powerful animals and the colorful company of prairie wildflowers. I’m sure I talked to grass and animals much more than people at that age. 

By eighteen, I was restless to see the world (Land urging me to witness her in all her variety? Perhaps). I wandered around Europe working on small farms with my sister and best friend. I returned to Kansas for university, but kept traveling the world through books, literature being the course of study I settled upon. Books led me around the globe, through time, into the minds of countless characters. After all that traveling, I found myself back with Land, studying her through literature. 

I remained in educational environments for a while, teaching this time. After a while, I felt an unmistakable invitation (who could it have been but Land?) to experience our continent. I followed the call to the Continental Divide Trail and due to a detour, found myself living in Montana. The apprenticeship opportunity offered by Quivira brought me to Charter Ranch. 

And so here I am. Back with grass and animals. How did I become interested in agriculture? I guess Land has been talking to me for a while now — I figured it was high time I learned how best to listen and respond. And this is what I hope for my time in this apprenticeship — that I continue to open my ear to Land’s voice, realizing my part in the whole, and learn how to respond with ready hands and heart.

November 2020

In my eight months working with Charter Ranch, I learned a thing or two. I learned how to fix a fence when most of the necessary tools were unavailable. I learned how to cook most cuts of beef over a campfire. I learned how to keep a level head when “all the cows are out…again.” I learned that every time you take your cowgal hat off, you need to place it upside down (let gravity keep that curve nice). I learned that if the truck starts, it’s going to be a good day. I learned that sometimes dogs are just plain mean — and even mean dogs like a little love every now and again. I learned that worms have sex too – and you might as well give them a bit of privacy while they are at it. I learned that wildfires happen and there’s absolutely no stopping that train. I learned that chaps make you feel like the real deal, but am still pretty sure they are mostly a fashion statement. I learned that being a real cowboy is more like being a good mother than anything else. I learned that you can’t run a ranch without neighbors. Finally, I learned (and it’s more of a remembering than anything) that I love grass and I love a big sky and I love working with animals and I’ll never have enough of those loves no matter how long I live.

As with any love, my experience at Charter this year dealt me an even share of joys and challenges. The joys: the characters I encountered along the way. If you’ve never lived in rural  Montana, you’ve missed a great opportunity to encounter a wild cast of characters: dog, cow, horse, cowboy, or tree (the trees in Eastern Montana are a bit like the trees that Willa Cather describes in her native Nebraska: “so rare in that country, and they had to make such a hard fight to grow, that we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons”).  

A joy: when I first arrived on the ranch, most of my time was spent with the dogs. They were my co-workers and their personalities so distinctly their own. I love them all, but I have a soft spot for one: it’s something in the way those cloudy old eyes twinkle when I walk in the mud room. His name is Huckleberry and you’ve never met a huckleberry in all of Montana that is this sweet. He’s an old boy, shaggy as a collie comes and retired from his cow working days, but he guards the communal dog food like he’s paid top dollar to do it. In his line of duty, he got in a fight with his arch enemy Hank, the territorial dog who lives next door on the ranch. This multi-thousand acre ranch wasn’t big enough for the two of them, I guess. In the confusion, my own dog started fighting and the three of them went at it until Huckleberry was wounded (and we thought mortally) in the battle. That night and the following two days, we thought we’d lost the poor old boy. He wouldn’t move from beside the fire, so we brought the water bowl to him and fed him little bits of meat and gave him all the love we had thinking it would be our last chance to let him know how we felt. Miraculously, on the third day, he rose (yes this is a Jesus metaphor) from beside the fire and wanted to go outside to pee. Surprised and happy, we spent the next few days carefully letting Huck in and out of the house, helping him up and down stairs and watching him closely. We knew he was healthy again when he returned to protecting the dog food. And there he’ll be, weathering one more Montana winter and so many more, I hope. 

A Challenge: death is hard for me to deal with. It always has been and always will be, I imagine. I’m not sure why I’m built this way, or why people are all different in how they are struck by the reality of death, but from the time I was a little girl (maybe even before I understood the full reality of it) I was hurt by the idea of death. I’m surely not original in this. In working with life, you work with death. Maybe you have a different name for it; maybe you believe death is simply part of the cycle of that altogether more lovely and approachable word “life.” I like that idea, but however you think of it, death is difficult. I was offered the honor of working with so much life this season, and so much death too. I am learning, slowly, how to participate in that passing, in that cycle, and the hardest lesson is that I am not in control; I can only offer my best and the rest is up to some power outside of me. 

I plan to carry these loves and challenges with me into next year. I will remain working with Charter Ranch with a bit of a new focus: the worm herd. While I will continue to work with the cattle operation and do daily tasks with the ranch as a whole, I hope to spend the majority of my time developing the vermicast enterprise. I learned a great deal about how to care for the worms this year, and next year we hope to keep growing the business. If you don’t think the future of ranching is in worms, you haven’t ever talked to Steve Charter.  Steve believes (and I am now a disciple of said beliefs) that worms are powerful little creatures that have the potential to usher the soils of the world into a microbial renaissance. I’d like to be a part of that rebirth, a midwife of sorts if you will. If you are in the market for worms or their castings, here’s my pitch, you know where to find me and my worm herd. 

It’s been an honor and a joy working with Quivira and Charter and all these characters this year. I look forward to another. Cheers. 

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