On Being an Apprentice: 3 Months In

In Apprenticing & Partnering, MY ARTICLES, My Farming Experiences by James11 Comments

Three months into my apprenticeship at Shady Grove Ranch I’m finally going to publish something, I shouldn’t say “write something” because I’ve been pecking away at this post for… three months. Aside from chipping away at this post I’ve mainly been “drinking from a fire hose” as Matt, my mentor, and head farmer at Shady Grove Ranch told me one day as I struggled to understand why I was still having trouble threading a hot polywire through a pigtail with one hand (not a real pigtail – it’s a post that holds the electrified polywire). Matt was right, I have been drinking though a fire hose these past months – lots of stuff coming my way and I’m not able to contain, i.e., remember it all. But the neuro pathways are slowly being carved and I can look back and clearly recognize that I’ve improved in skill and now have the energy and strength to think about other things than just getting through each task of the day before I pass out from mental and physical exhaustion. I’m slowly but surely progressing into something useful at the ranch.

Arrival

My wife Anna and I left Seoul, South Korea some time in the morning, after weeks of packing, saying “good byes”, and numerous trips to the post office to ship our life’s accumulations halfway around the world. Upon our arrival to the U.S. we stayed with my parents in Arizona for about a week then hopped on another plane and flew to Dallas Texas. Apparently we were on an early morning business route because we were the only ones picking up luggage at baggage claim after the flight. Shortly after locating our bags a tall, wiry, smiling man wearing a light tan felt cowboy hat greeted us. It was Matt, the owner of the ranch we’d be apprenticing at. He helped us with our bags and we drove three hours East of Dallas to the farm, and our new home. It had been raining all morning and was still raining when we arrived, and would continue to rain for the next two days. Despite the rain the farm still was a very welcoming place after our long journey. We were warmly welcomed by the Cadman family including children and grand parents. Matt’s wife, Jerica, prepared a delicious dinner that night giving us a sample of some of their best cuts of beef and pork. The food and hospitality were spectacular. The first night with the rain still coming down we went to bed with full bellies and a mix of relief and wonder. A night of wild and weird dreams filled our sleep, and in the early hours of the next day the electricity went out, and stayed out for the next thirty something hours. The next day, in pouring rain, with no electricity, is when I first started to drink from the firehose. I received a lesson on generators and electricity. I don’t remember much of it, but I remember standing in the pouring rain understanding the concepts in the moment. I guess that’s something. This start to farming scenario wasn’t in the playbook, it wasn’t the start anyone on the farm envisioned, but calling audibles is a regular part of the game in farm life. What better way to get initiated than a 36 hour power outage and record rainfall? And so it started.

Routine

They say a farmer never sleeps in. It’s true. Farmer’s wake up at sunrise Monday through Sunday including all holidays, even labour day. Even if it’s raining. Even if it’s ice rain – thankfully I haven’t experience the ice rain yet. This type of farming includes every day morning and evening chores. Depending on what kind of set up (animal situation) you have at the farm, morning chores take on average about two hours to complete. Mostly it’s checking on animals and feeding ones that need it. Breakfast takes place after chores then the remainder of the day is dedicated to whatever project or projects you’re working on. For example the big project we were working on was completing the mobile range coup. This is a portable structure that will allow the farmer to raise 600 broilers (meat chickens) on pasture within one structure. It’s moved once a day by pulling it with a tractor or truck. It’s a very efficient system, gives daily green and clean grass to the chickens, and is an injection of soil building life to the pasture.

Nearly complete Mobile Range Coupe

Nearly complete Mobile Range Coupe

inside the range coupe

inside the range coupe

Dark green middle strip is a few weeks post range coupe

Dark green middle strip is a few weeks post range coupe

What’s on the Farm?

Shady Grove Ranch raises a variety of animals including: cows, pigs, meat and egg chickens. They also host a few friendly dogs, two of which are Great Pyrenees, Zeke and Bill. These two big furry guys are livestock guardian dogs and they have bonded with the layer (egg) chickens and stay with them and keep them safe from predation. Currently the ranch has around 100 head of cattle with several new calves, 100 pigs with several new litters of piglets, and close to 800 chickens (layers and meat). The meat chickens stay with us for about seven weeks. We get them a day after they hatch and raise them to processing weight which takes around seven weeks.

IMG_9994

The Cattle waiting for new pasture

Cow and new calf

Cow and new calf

Pigs tilling our garden

Pigs tilling our garden

Zeke and I with the layers after the rain

Zeke and I with the layers after the rain

Lessons

I mentioned at the beginning of this post I’ve been taking in a lot of new information and carving various new neural pathways. One of the most challenging things I’ve learned is working with electric fence when it is on, or as we say “hot.” It’s challenging because getting shocked isn’t fun. The little shocks don’t hurt much but they scare you because the big shocks do hurt. I’ve had two of the big shocks and you feel it throughout your body and in particularly your chest. Along with learning the ins and outs of working with hot fencing I’ve learned to drive a tractor. Driving a tractor is less painful than working with hot fence, but can do a lot more damage if you’re not careful. I’ve learned about hooking up and detaching trailers as well, which are a regular item of use on the farm for hauling livestock to freezers and other large equipment. As for animal lessons I’ve learned about their food rations (ingredients and daily feed amount), water care, and what to look out for in terms of their overall health and wellbeing. One of the most enjoyable lessons we get to experience on a pastured meat farm is sampling all the different meat and learning how to prepare it. The roast chicken is hands down the best chicken I’ve had in my life, it’s juicy and full of flavor. No need for any sauce. My personal favorite meat cut however is the center cut pork chop. It’s about an inch thick with plenty of fat around the edges. I never much cared for pork chop growing up as it was nearly always too dry and lacking flavor. Thus the need for copious amounts of sauce to get it down. This is a result of the industrial food system – no offense mom. The chop from the pork raised on pasture is moist and bursting with flavor. It’s truly a phenomenal cut of meat. All of the meat is great, but for me this pork chop really stands out. The best way to prepare is to sear it on both sides in cast iron skillet, then pop it in the oven for a bit. Take it out and let it rest and for a special treat add some milk and flour to the fat in the cast iron for a delicious gravy to put on top of the chop – it doesn’t need the gravy of course but it certainly is a nice comfort food addition. Oh and in case you don’t read fat is not bad for you, and pastured animal fat is loaded with vitamins and minerals so no need to trim it or feed it to the dogs. Eat and enjoy.

Final Thoughts

I always wondered why I couldn’t find more pasture meat farm interns and apprentices keeping an updated blog about what they’re doing. I now realize that there is little to no time to keep up with a blog when you’re farming 12 hours a day. This blog was originally created to track my progress and share my experiences of my journey into farming. I’m now farming and this blog will need to shift a bit but hopefully keep doing what’s it’s done for the past three years – share my experiences with family and friends and provide value to people who are trying to transition into farming. I’ll try my best to keep up with posts about what I’m doing and learning, and always within the context of apprenticing until that transforms to the next stage, and then I hope to continue within that context. Post content to look forward to in the coming months: We put in a pretty big garden – so something about gardening, the ins and outs of pastured pigs, beef, and poultry. I’d like to focus posts on particular enterprises on the farm. For example I’d like to write a post that focuses solely on the pastured pig operation going into more detail about how it works.  Thanks for reading and hopefully the next post won’t be in three months…

Check out Shady Grove Ranch’s Facebook Page to keep up to date with the happenings and to see more pics.

Comments

  1. Anna

    James! What an adventure and it’s just the beginning. I can’t wait to come visit Anna Jo, you, your new friends (human and other species), and try some of that great tasting meat. Oh, I too know the pains of the hot fence…I threw something over one before back in Heber at a friends house and remember the pain to this day. Great post, keep them coming when time permits. Love, Anna

    1. Author
      James

      Thanks Anna! Looking forward to having you guys out here soon. We can even play with the electric fence if you want! 🙂

  2. Addye Thole

    Enjoyed your publication, James!! Glad you were able to take a breather and share your past few months. 🙂

    1. Author
      James

      Thank you! It took a while, but hopefully next post won’t be so far out. Thanks for reading. 🙂

  3. Kate

    So exciting to hear about the beginning of your adventures! Will let you know if we make it to the area in the fall 🙂 Love to you and Anna Jo from Seoul!

    1. James

      Hi Kate! Great to hear from you! Hope all is well in Seoul. Please do let us know if you’re in the area. Would love to see you and I think everyone would really enjoy it out here. Take care. Anna says hi! 🙂

  4. Gabriel Dye

    Best post to date. It’s been a steady progression of learning and experimenting, and now here you are, with a great (from what you’ve told me) mentor and family. Chokes me up a bit. Anna, same here! I can’t wait to visit either, especially after that pork chop description.

    1. James

      Hey Gabe! Thanks as always for the master mind push to get us here. You’re forever apart of our story. Looking forward to seeing you perform in Dallas then hosting you for a bit. Lots of bacon and pork chops waiting for you… 🙂

  5. Ryan

    Good to hear an update from you James! You guys are busy! No more relaxing time in Citivill lol..keep carving those neural pathways.

  6. James

    Hey Ryan, thanks! Yeah, no more Citivill… haha. I can’t say I miss it. No room to grow anything there. Did have fast internet though. 😉

  7. Pingback: A New Direction

Leave a Reply