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 agriculture as the greatest contributor to the climate crisis, change in farming is critical. This panel showcased the experiences and takeaways of this season’s RBR livestock and farm apprentices doing just that.
RBR is cherished for its ecological stewardship practices and bio-intensive food production, and its Farmer Training Program immerses apprentices in the hands-on raising of animals and growing food. Humane animal husbandry centers on species/pasture cycling and rotation, in which animals graze, scratch, peck and excrete. This stimulates healthy re-growth and enriches the “living” soils. In turn, these vital soils produce robust, more nutritious crops.
Apprentice Hannah Pike first farmed in New Hampshire on four acres, “with a lot more tractor work,” she says. “That wasn’t really scratching my itch for conservation, so I was really interested in coming to this [farm] to learn 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-till and high-intensity vegetable systems like they have here at the ranch.”
Regenerative systems apply not only to the ecosystems in nature or farms but to communities. The pandemic shows how critical local food production can be when larger food systems break down. Pandemic aside, the nation’s food systems and regional economies are not always just. Disparities leave “food deserts,” areas that have no access to affordable or healthy food in general.
Apprentice Hollis Vanderlinden addressed this in their previous work with the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative, a nonprofit working with Lakota people in Mission, South Dakota.
“I was helping to manage a beginning farmer program,” they say, “and working part-time on their farm. After helping other individuals get back to their own power to produce their own food for themselves and their community, I felt that it was important for myself and the ways I wanted to contribute to and interact with my community, to gain that knowledge for myself. And I love food! Food has always been how I connect with my friends and my community in meaningful and genuine, deep ways.”
Livestock and land apprentice Shannon Hourigan shares that she has “always loved animals.” Her background was overly academic though, and she burned out. “Coming to ACES, I wanted to have that experience with animals and farming, and see agriculture through a more hands-on lens versus what I had been taught in books,” she says, but “to stack upon that knowledge,” and “take opportunities such as [apprenticing] to use that more academic background and share [it with the] community.”
Working with livestock to regenerate the land, Hourigan has a newly-gained perspective that encompasses a more holistic view and understanding of her “external world,” she explains. “We work on such large geographic scales – we’re always outside – which is different for me, being in school, working at a restaurant. You exist in smaller, confined spaces. While you may go for a walk or a run or a hike, and be able to experience beautiful, open landscapes, it’s different existing in it every single day.”
Ray Mooney moves from the obvious, “how I see myself as a consumer in the economy,” to “something that’s shunned; kind of put in the corner in our society, that farming has really brought to life with me – and it’s the antithesis of life: death.”
Mooney explains that confronting death is an unavoidable part of farming. “I’ve seen way more of it this year than I ever have in my life.” Living with the animals day in and day out, “it becomes less of something you want to push away, 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’s been something humbling to be a part of – grounding.”
When Mooney describes his days, he feels pushback. “People are so out of touch with how their food is produced…” Mooney continues, “Here at Rock Bottom, the numbers are infinitesimally smaller than all the goods you’re going to buy at the supermarket. If you’re a little scared by the phone call where I tell you we had 12 birds have their last evening [alive], what goes on elsewhere is a lot more.”
Rock Bottom Ranch has taken farm apprenticeships a long way from the ‘90s. Thirty years ago, apprentices were primarily labor for the growing movement of Community Supported Agriculture. Today ACES’s Farmer Training Program ushers in a new era of driven, intelligent and compassionate farmers ready to tackle climate change and a broken food ecosystem.