October 2013

Cows and Apples: A Dirt Girl’s Journey


Martha Skelley


My mother calls me her “dirt girl” because of my early and continued fondness for soil. Understanding the living and breathing medium underneath our feet has led me to want to protect it and enrich its natural processes while feeding people.

I did not know in high school that my fascination with soils, ecology and environmental science would lead me to raising cattle and learning holistic tree-health skills in the Southwest, but it has, and much of my agrarian calling started in college. Warren Wilson College, near Asheville, NC, set me up for the journey I am on today. The college’s educational philosophy, the Triad: work, service and academics, appealed to me. Every student works for the college in some capacity, be it serving food in the dining hall, building guitars for the fine-wood-working crew, or raising swine, cattle and poultry down on the college farm. Farming in the Appalachian hills captured my heart and mind. As a result, I worked for two-and-a-half years, largely with cattle, but also with swine and poultry.

While leading the cattle crew, I began looking for apprenticeships that focused on raising beef and other livestock. I came across Quivira Coalition’s New Agrarian Program at San Juan Ranch in Colorado. In February of 2012 I moved west to work for 12 months for George Whitten and Julie Sullivan in the San Luís Valley. There I learned many hard truths of agriculture: no rain equals no grass, to name one. We overcame climatic stresses by being mobile and moving cattle to properties along the Río Grande. Learning new landscapes and adapting grazing methods to fit management objectives was often fun and hard work. I came west with the wish to learn about water rights, aridity and ranching, and I got a good dose of all three, and much more.

While the Quivira Coalition and its New Agrarian Program exposed me to raising cattle on large landscapes, it also unveiled my need to follow my other agricultural interest—fruit trees. While fruit trees and cattle might seem like an odd combination, I do seek to one day to have an operation that combines the two. The Quivira Coalition helped me discover Tooley’s Trees near Truchas, NM. Gordon Tooley and Margaret Yancey have taken me on as an intern, and I am learning about producing high-quality nursery stock for retail and wholesale. Tooley’s Trees specializes in heirloom and heritage fruit tree varieties and other native or endemic species that do well in New Mexico climates and soils. Gordon and Margaret’s holistic tree/orchard health philosophy starts with the life within the soil (bacteria, fungi and invertebrates—just to name a few) and ways to feed the biota, which then make available nutrients to trees and other plants. Their desire to mend and feed soils has taken their once hard-packed soils to easy shovelfuls of rich organic and nutrient-diverse soils.

My new agrarian mentorships have been vital to my journey. I would not be where I am today without the encouragement and opportunities offered by my bosses. Their gifts of teaching and sharing open up doors and allow apprentices access to a life that has more often been passed down than left open for anyone to join. American agriculture has taken an interesting twist from its roots of family farming; with less than 1 percent of our population now involved in food production, we need to empower a new generation of farmers and ranchers. These young people need access to mentorship, starting capital and affordable land. The next generation of agrarians also needs to be able to read their land, see what it offers, and learn to give back what they take from it.

Anyone with their hands in the soil has observed the climatic changes over the past decade. Knowing the future is filled with unknowns, especially when it comes to weather and changing climatic conditions, I, and other new agrarians, must be keen to building an adaptable agricultural skill set. Diverse knowledge of soils, plants, animals and weather is fundamental to this adaptability.

As I was delving into why I want to live my life connected to the land and feeding others, I found the following quote in the introduction to The Essential Agrarian Reader by Norman Wirzba: “Agrarianism tests success and failure not by projected income statements or by economic growth, but by health and vitality of a region’s entire human and non-human neighborhood.” Dr. Wirzba reminds us it is the responsibility of the community—the “neighborhood”—to care for the living and non-living elements; it is not just a landowner’s responsibility. Dr. Wirzba goes on to state that agrarianism is “the most complex and far-reaching accounting system ever known.” This accounting system includes the ever-present watersheds and soils that our neighborhood relies upon, as well as the communal desire for species diversity, joy, creativity and respect for all sources of life.

Agriculture should equal community. Today communities need to actively look for ways to cultivate opportunities for new agrarians. Since many community-oriented new agrarians did not grow up on a farm or ranch where mechanical and earth-reading skills were passed down for generations, we will need to share not just tools and equipment, but knowledge and know-how, and lend each other a hand when we have a skill another does not.

There is a force of young and old who want to get back to the soil and plants, and it takes encouragement, mentorship and fortitude to see it all grow. While we do this, let us feed our friends and neighbors of our whole community. Even if you are a front-porch, potted-plant gardener, a backyard gardener, have one acre or several thousand acres, or buy your food at the grocery store, you are a member of the “neighborhood” of this Earth, and a part of her processes.


Martha Skelley is currently an apprentice with Tooley’s Trees in Truchas, NM. After graduating from Quivira’s New Agrarian Program, she found this opportunity to further her education at the 2012 Quivira Conference New Agrarian Career Connection event.



The 2013 New Agrarian Career Connection

Quivira recognizes the urgent need to connect experienced land owners/managers and conservation leaders with the next generation of people who will be responsible for growing our food and stewarding our planet. Quivira’s 3rd Annual New Agrarian Career Connection will take place on the second evening of the 2013 Quivira Conference (Nov. 14). The purpose of the event is to provide an opportunity for conversations among like-minded people to explore apprenticeships and partnerships and learn about land transfer opportunities—thereby helping to ensure the future of American agriculture. This event will be open to all and free of charge.

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