Saturday, April 28, 2012

Thoreau's Dilemna

On a sticky note on my computer is a quote from the writer Jessamyn West, 1902-1984, best known as the author of The Friendly Persuasion. The quote goes like this: “talent is helpful in writing, but guts are absolutely necessary.”

So what would I say if I had the guts to admit it? Probably a lot, but in regards to the ranch, it would be that even though we love walking the same land our great-grandparents did, the weight of tradition and the burden of ownership are very real to us. Our view is clouded by all that came before. To NOT ranch is hardly a possibility.  

Henry David Thoreau in his often quoted Walden put it this way: “I see young men . . . whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in.”

Ouch. That’s a bit harsh. But I do wonder if we would have chosen this lifestyle if we hadn’t been born into it. What would we have pursued if we had been raised by parents that worked in town? We’ll never know. What we do know is that a few hundred cows depend on us every single day of the year. In the spring the land dries and looks to us for irrigation water. And when you put water on ground, harvest follows.

When Mark was a young man looking towards his future, Grandma Bonnie told him to go to college. Referring to his Dad and Grandpa, Bonnie told him, “this ranch has taken too much out of two men already." Mark did go on to university and taught school for sixteen years, but the ranch was here every night after school and on the weekends until it finally pulled him back to its beautiful and relentless cycle of obligations. 

So that’s my gutsy blog. And to put a bit of poetry back in, here’s a photo of our two oldest kids, home for a few days and riding together again. As I post this, they're both visiting far away places. Seth is in Alaska and Callie is in Germany. But wherever they go they take their roots with them. They’re strong because of this ranch. They know who they are because of this ranch. They probably got their guts here too.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Rancher's Life in Australia - guest post by Therese Johnston

I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains.
Of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons, I love her jewelled sea.
Her beauty and her terror, the wide brown land for me!

An excerpt from “My Country” by Dorothea Mackellar 1889- my favourite Australian poet

Our family and the Pratt family became friends in 2007. We were in the midst of a long Australian drought, our wheat crop was failing and we were offloading cattle as there was no feed. It was then that we began looking for an opportunity to experience life elsewhere for a while. Mark and Wendy offered us the amazing chance to live and work on Pratt Ranch while our own ranch healed. I am honoured to be a guest writer for Wendy’s blog and to share our story of a rancher’s life in Cowra, Australia.

Rodney and I live on the Johnston family ranch with our three daughters Anna (12), Kate (10) and Sophie (8). We are about 200 miles west of Sydney, over the Great Dividing Mountain Range which snakes its way down the length of eastern Australia. We have approximately 1500 acres which is an average sized holding for this area. I work in town each day as an elementary school teacher where our girls go to school. Rodney works the farm and we also own another business delivering milk products to schools, retail outlets, retirement homes etc in and around town. Life is full!

Our town of Cowra is in the Lachlan Valley which is primarily a sheep and cropping area. Farmers sow wheat, canola and oats in April/ May and then look for the winter rains from June to August. Harvest is usually in November/December. We have a mixed bag on our ranch, a couple of nearby dairies need good pasture for their heifers, so we offer agistment for these heifers and are paid a premium for weight gain. We also trade steers, with Angus cattle attracting the highest prices. We grow oats and alfalfa to ensure year round quality of feed.  Our business has changed significantly from 10 years ago, a more careful grazing and pasture management plan with a more holistic overall approach means that we can maintain production without the cost of expensive fertilizers and weed spraying.

If you stand on the highest point on our ranch you can see all that our valley has to offer. The Lachlan River is the defining feature of our landscape and the lifeblood of our community. It flows into Wyangala Dam about 30 kilometres upstream from town and from there water release is regulated to suit the environmental and farming requirements further downstream. You can see many productive farms along its length, ranging from alfalfa crops, vineyards, vegetable farms, livestock and many winter crops. As well as having a practical/commercial application, Wyangala Dam provides us with a summer oasis. Most weekends in summer are spent with friends, water skiing and enjoying the backwaters of this huge body of water. It is the place to be on a hot summer’s day and it was a fun place to camp with friends over the recent Easter break.

When I think about the similarities between the Australian and American rancher I think that we are all custodians of our environments, taking care to nurture what we have in order to manage the balance between income and stewardship. My family is lucky to have experienced ranching life in both countries, the common bonds of family, love, respect and friendship link us all. Spending 10 months with the Pratt family was filled with such wonderful experiences and memories that we are forever thankful. We forged lifelong friendships and bonds that we would never have found if not for the incredible generosity of Wendy and Mark, Callie, Seth, Anna, Anita and Gary, Bonnie and Aunt Anita.

                  - Therese Johnston

 Sophie, Anna, and Kate

Therese and Rodney

Monday, April 16, 2012

All in for FFA

We’re home from attending the state FFA leadership conference.  A glorious three days of watching our kids do their stuff on stage, with Anna as the presiding VP and Seth as a national officer. It’s a very “full to the brim” feeling sitting in a crowd of 1500 kids and knowing our two have done their best in this year of service.

The kids come in all shapes and sizes. Big clumsy boys in black slacks, their hair combed nicely - wearing ties no less! The girls are in black skirts, also with white shirts and neck ties. Both wear the signature blue corduroy jacket, their state and chapter name on the back, their own name proudly embroidered on the right chest. They come from all corners of Idaho to compete in contests ranging from livestock judging and floral arrangement to parliamentary procedure and public speaking. They come to learn from their leaders and receive recognition for their hard work.

The best part of the convention is when students are honored for top achievements in their individual agriculture projects at home. Some raise pigs, sheep, cattle or rabbits. Others work on farms, harvest hay, work in food service or a welding shop. One young man won an award for Ag Processing by working for his grandparents at their small kill facility, harvesting beef year round and deer and elk during hunting season. Another grows and sells greenhouse flowers. The big wide world of agriculture is explored, propagated, nurtured, harvested, and marketed by these kids.

Afterwards Seth and Anna had a farewell lunch with the FFA kids, past and present, who made the conference come together. We hung around for a couple of hours letting them say their goodbyes before they all scattered back out to their own lives.

One moment of the conference stood out to me. There was an elderly gentleman presenting foundation scholarships to students. He was enthusiastic about what he had seen that day. He was describing his impression of the student members and used the adjective “genteel.”  I shook his hand later and thanked him for his comments, but I had to look up the word to be sure of its meaning. Genteel is defined this way: polite, refined, well-bred (formerly meaning gentlemanly or ladylike). Can you imagine anyone over 60 referring to today's youth in that manner? What a compliment and I couldn’t agree more.

Seth's workshop with Anna as helper

Anna with Elly and Hannah, visiting state officers from Washington

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Ethics of Eating Meat

The following is my answer to a question posed by the New York Times on eating meat. We were to address ethics only, not the multitude of side conversations on personal preference, whether meat is industrially produced, grass-fed, etc. I thought they should hear from a western range rancher.

The New York Times asks us to ponder the question, “is it ethical to eat meat?” As a cattle rancher born and bred, I have been wracking my brain to explain why I sleep soundly at night. I desperately want to reference the role of domesticated animals and the good lives they lead. What about tradition and the value of pastoral communities? And on and on. But I refrain, and through much thought have it finally straight in my mind.

Boiled down to its essence, this is a biological question. And biology says that humans are designed to consume meat. Of course many would disagree with me, for they believe research proclaiming that meat, specifically red meat, is bad for us. What isn’t reported is the vigorous debate surrounding this research, much of what is observational rather than cause and effect.   
The planet is in a constant state of living and dying. Plants grow up, mature, and are returned to the soil. Herbivores eat those plants, get eaten themselves, and also return to the soil. Decomposers then do their job of further breakdown, eventually providing nutrients for new plant life, and the cycle continues. It is no less, nor more romantic than that. We all face the same fate.

This ecosystem that sustains us is marvelously complex, efficient on a grand scale, messy, and rich with symbiosis - species working together in complementary ways. In seasonal climates, animals have been throughout time, an effective and transportable way to store the bounty of the growing season to be used later by meat eaters during the dormant season. These herbivores turn non-digestible plants into protein, fat, vitamins and minerals that coincidentally (?) provide just what a human body needs. This design is breathtaking in its genius.  

It’s only been in recent times with the ability to preserve food and transport fresh produce from warmer climates, that we in temperate zones have had the luxury of varied year-round diet selection. Has eating meat become unethical only of late, when we have bananas at Christmas and vitamins from a jar?

I respect each individual’s decision to consume meat or not, but to presume that we as a species have evolved to a point where we are above eating meat is ignorant or elitist, probably both.