Dear agrarians and friends,
I’m from Tucson, Arizona and my name is Regina. I joined the National Young Farmers’ Coalition team this month to organize young farmer & rancher chapters in the Colorado River Basin. I’d like to take a moment to introduce myself and close with a question to all of you.
I live in the Sonoran Desert between two dry riverbeds—the Rillito and Santa Cruz—and an arms stretch from four mountain ranges (the Rincons, Tucson Mts., Santa Ritas and the Catalinas). My wild backyard neighbors include javalinas, bobcats, lizards, desert tortoises (of which I have two) and, in the wintertime, flocks of migrating birds that settle down or pit-stop here on their way south, across the border.
Over the last decade, I’ve worked on small-scale vegetable farms and heirloom apple orchards in the northeast corners of the U.S. and southwest, close to home. In between, I’ve tiptoed over to dairy CAFOs in Eastern Oregon and donned my cowboy hat in community gardens in South Tucson. I’ve ogled over the vast acres of lettuce in Yuma and admired the modest fields of White Sonora wheat in Patagonia. I’ve tried to piece apart and understand the different ingredients in our food system—where food comes from, what seasonality really is and the who’s-who of the big players that grow, transport, deliver and consume the food found in our conventional grocery stores.
My delight in supporting and eating the food from my watershed continues to grow: it is something I bring to the dinner table and to my horse trough garden (when the pernicious mint is under control).
And of course landscapes can foster other life, too—not just veggies and fruit. In addition to sustainably growing Newtown Pippin apples and Bodega Red potatoes, animals can also be raised and harvested with the same care and by the same ethical principles.
Over the years, I’ve also set out to try to figure how a person can determine the “health” of a landscape and whether or not a piece of land can truly “repair” when people and animals are eradicated from it (an idea I’d often heard—although privately doubted—from many anti-ranching activists). I visited a small-operation ranch in Nevada to see Holistic Range Management in action; I herded cattle on foot in the San Luis Valley of Colorado; I studied native plants, drove up and down watersheds and read Aldo Leopold in McNeal, Arizona. These ranchers—both young and young-at-heart—showed me how to read and measure working landscapes. They taught me how to use ruminants to repair degraded soil and increase water yields. I learned about marketing, cattle rotations, water harvesting and storing carbon in the soil (aka: terrestrial carbon sequestration). They impressed me with their unyielding humility, humanity and love for ecosystems, water and all creatures—both the big (like cattle) and the very small (like pollinators).
I’ve painted a nice picture here, but for a moment, let’s take off these rose-colored glasses. It’s wild out here in the West. Much of the land is rocky and full of clay; the air is arid; we don’t have a lot of water. Because farmers and ranchers are physically so far apart from one another, it’s hard to build a community and beginning agrarians are even more disadvantaged.
We need new-age “Granges” across the West where young farmers and ranchers can meet one another in supportive, safe and fun places—spaces where they can also learn from their peers about desert-adapted seed, how to determine what landscapes are viable for farming immediately and which ones can be restored through planned grazing programs, good land management practices, and so on. We need these networks to be water savvy; we must build communities of people who know how to harvest rainwater and irrigate intelligently. And as we build our numbers, we will have more national weight and power to tackle big agriculture and advocate for farm bill policies that will help young folks on the ground.
I am delighted to join the NYFC team and focus on the west and strengthen the agrarian communities close to my home. For the last few years, I’ve started to build networks and advocate for young agrarians in different ways and through different forums in the southwest corners of the U.S. This is a starting place, but friends, this is where you come in. I would like to close this introductory letter with an “ask” from all of you. I would like to call upon you to put me in touch with your young agrarian friends in the West. I’d like to connect with these young farmers and ranchers, learn their stories and cater to their needs and desires. Please help me build this community.
With hope for rain, collaboration and contra dances,