Los Ojos, 14 May 2018
Alexis wrote eloquently over the last couple weeks about her answer to the question of why we decided to start a ranch. She sees the profession as a way to care for others, and to her, producing high-quality local food is Important work that Matters. My answer is very different – to begin with, I’m allergic to anything “Important”. All the things that she says are true (farmers are getting old; we need to preserve rural America; successful small farm businesses are potentially part of the answer to a variety of rural ills… the list goes on), but even though I do believe that all these things matter, on the gut level where action comes from, they’re just not that compelling to me.
Lots of factors also militate against me undertaking a career in agriculture: I don’t see farming as public service or think that it’s especially virtuous. I really like animals, but I grew up with them, so I don’t get stars in my eyes when I think about raising them. I’m also not particularly well-suited to farming. I don’t like getting up early, I like traveling, like having plenty of cash on hand, like being clean, don’t like having responsibilities that tie me down… So why did I leave an amazing job to do this?
The answer boils down to what Alexis says when she gets aggravated at me – typically when we’re working animals, nothing is going according to plan, and it feels like we’re in the midst of some major-minor catastrophe: “The problem with you,” she tells me, “is that you think this is all fun.”
In one very real sense, she’s right. Much as I gripe and complain about (name your topic – weather/animals/bureaucracy), don’t be fooled – I do this because it’s fun. I’ve never been bored on a ranch – something (everything) is always falling apart, & nothing stays fixed. The problems are all hard and usually high stakes, and there’s seldom an obvious best option. Nobody tells you how to solve the problems, and after you implement a solution, nobody tells you if it’s right (or wrong) – the only feedback you get is what you notice, and then you have to interpret it & decide whether things would actually have been better if you’d done something different. I enjoy the problem-solving combined with physical work, and I love the fact that there’s only two options: figure it out or fail. It’s hard work, but it’s also play.
I grew up ranching, and I remember never wanting to do anything else. But I left agriculture – for education, first, then for the military – and for fifteen years I actively resisted coming back. Each time my contract came up, I planned to leave the military, and each time I evaluated my options. Ranching always came out near the top, but I remembered the hard work & insecurity, and I didn’t feel that I could ask my wife to trade our comfortable life for that. I resisted so long, focusing on the unpleasant side of the thing, that I almost entirely forgot that feeling of never wanting to do anything else. Except that every morning as I walked into work, I’d look up at the sky, and almost no matter what the weather, I’d wish that I could spend the day out in it doing something productive. Outdoor hobbies (hunting/hiking/climbing/fishing/etc.) didn’t really scratch that itch – they just felt like visiting, when what I really wanted – though I would certainly not have put it in these terms at the time – was to participate in the natural world, to be an active part of the ecosystem, as only agriculturalists (and hunter/gatherers, I suppose) are.
Why ranch? Because it turns out that it’s all I’ve ever actually wanted to do.