The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) at Rock Bottom Ranch (RBR) recently hosted a panel discussion, “So you think you want to be a farmer? At a time when the world recognizes that agriculture is the biggest contributor to the climate crisis, change in agriculture is essential. This panel showcased the experiences and takeaways from this season’s RBR Livestock and Farm Apprentices who do just that.
RBR is valued for its stewardship practices and bio-intensive food production, and its farmer training program immerses apprentices in hands-on animal husbandry and food cultivation. Humane farming focuses on the cycle and rotation of species / pastures, in which animals graze, scratch, peck and excrete. This stimulates healthy regrowth and enriches “living” soils. In turn, these vital soils produce robust and more nutritious crops.
Apprentice Hannah Pike first farmed in New Hampshire on four acres, “with a lot more tractor work,” she says. “I didn’t really itch for conservation so I was really interested in coming to this [farm] to learn more about the intersection of conservation agriculture and how my practices can not only produce food for my community, but also invest in soil health through low-tillage and low-tillage market gardening systems. high intensity like they did here at the ranch.
Regenerative systems apply not only to natural ecosystems or farms, but also to communities. The pandemic shows how critical local food production can be when larger food systems collapse. Aside from the pandemic, the country’s food systems and regional economies are not always fair. The disparities leave “food deserts”, areas that do not have access to affordable or healthy food in general.
Apprentice Hollis Vanderlinden addressed this issue in her previous work with the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative, a non-profit organization working with the Lakota in Mission, South Dakota.
“I was helping run a junior farmer program,” they say, “and I was working part-time on their farm. After helping other people regain their own power to produce their own food for themselves and their community, I felt it was important to me and the ways I wanted to contribute and interact with my community, d ‘acquire this knowledge for myself. And I love the food! Food has always been how I connect with my friends and community in a meaningful, authentic and deep way. “
Livestock and land apprentice Shannon Hourigan shares that she “always loved animals”. Her background was too academic though, and she burned out. “Coming to ACES, I wanted to have this experience with animals and farming, and see farming from a more practical perspective compared to what I had learned from books,” she says, but “To build on this knowledge” and “seize opportunities such as [apprenticing] to use this more academic training and to share [it with the] community.”
In working with livestock to regenerate the land, Hourigan has a newly acquired perspective that encompasses a more holistic view and understanding of her “outside world,” she explains. “We work on such large geographic scales – we’re always outside – which is different for me, being in school, working in a restaurant. You exist in smaller, confined spaces. While you can go for a walk, run or hike and be able to experience beautiful open landscapes, it is different every day.
Ray Mooney goes from the obvious “how I see myself as a consumer in the economy” to “something that is avoided; sort of put in a corner in our society that agriculture really brought to life with me – and that’s the antithesis of life: death.
Mooney explains that facing death is an inevitable part of farming. “I’ve seen a lot more this year than I’ve ever seen in my life.” Living with animals day in and day out, “it becomes less of something you want to repel, and it becomes more of something appreciative of the cycle of life, and inherent in the cycle of life is the end of it. It was humbling to be a part of – the grounding. “
When Mooney describes his days, he feels pushed back. “People are so out of touch with the way their food is produced…” Mooney continues: “Here at Rock Bottom, the numbers are infinitely smaller than all the products you go to buy at the supermarket. If you are a little afraid of the phone call where I tell you that we had 12 birds have their last evening [alive], what happens elsewhere is much more.
Rock Bottom Ranch has come a long way since the 90s towards agricultural apprenticeships. Thirty years ago, apprentices were primarily labor for the growing community-supported agriculture movement. Today, ACES ‘Farmer Education Program ushers in a new era of motivated, smart and compassionate farmers ready to tackle climate change and a shattered food ecosystem.